What should a city do when a $1.3 million construction plan runs into a potentially historic archeological find documenting the oldest residents of North America?
That's the question city leaders in Walker never expected.
Crude stone tools, found about two weeks ago, may have been left by people here 13,000 to 14,000 years ago. Experts said more research is needed to make firm conclusions regarding the tools.
The archaeological find is in the path of the planned route of Tower Avenue. The plan was to complete the existing Tower Avenue to Highway 371 on Walker's southeast side to the community center, and it also would connect to future residential and commercial development.
The community center, with ice area, gym, fitness center and Boys and Girls Club, is under construction. The city reports the southeast side is about the only land left in the city to develop. City officials met Friday with state, federal and archaeological representatives in Walker to look at options.
Walker Mayor Brad Walhof said the interest in the subject was shown in the Friday public works meeting. The meeting drew a full room when typically only two people attend.
What's needed now is detailed information on the scope of the potential archeological dig at the site and who will be responsible for it. That information has remained vague, Walhof said.
Until now, the state's earliest evidence of human habitation was the remains of Browns Valley Man, found in 1933 near that western Minnesota town and estimated to be 9,000 years old.
The Walker tools are considered by experts to be at least 13,000 to 14,000 years old. That would make them far older than most finds of prehistoric remains in North America. But more research needs to be done to allow firm conclusions, experts have said.
"I think it might be a great opportunity," Walhof said of the find. "We just need to figure out what we need to do in the short term and that's the puzzle the city council needs to solve." For Walhof the find just shows how long Walker, a tourism community, has appealed to people as a place to go.
"We've had people visiting here for 15,000 years."
Walhof said it was premature to predict what may happen. "I think I can safely say we are going to protect the site," he said.
The city's project involves a new road, sewer and water. The archeological site lies right in the middle of the proposed road the city has been planning for two years. Walhof said the council hopes to make an informed decision when it meets Feb. 5.
Questions include who would retain ownership of the site and protect it. And the city of Walker has to consider what is feasible from options that include postponing the construction project or rerouting the road.
"We really don't have any answers to those questions right now," Walhof said.
Bids for the project were let and a contractor is already working.
The city and area chamber of commerce have received calls from people interested in the Walker tools find and seeing it, which opens the door to a potential tourism attraction. Walhof said the interest is not surprising considering the site's potential.
"I think excitement could best describe it," Walhof said of residents' reaction to the discovery. It's a feeling, the mayor said he shares. "The experts are all telling us it's a very, very old site - probably the oldest in the continent - that's pretty exciting."
Walhof said the site poses an opportunity for Walker and its tourism.
"I think a vote will have to be made by the council whether or not we do protect the site and I firmly believe we will," Walhof said. "I do believe the council will make that decision."
Initial plans called for recovery of material from the site before a road could be built. Because of steep terrain, rerouting the road didn't seem feasible.
"We didn't know what we were going to find," said Britta Bloomberg, deputy state historic preservation officer. Now, she said, it's a "common sense thing" to reconsider rerouting the road and preserve the site so that archaeologists could study it with "different insights and new technology." Walhof said an interpretive center with the tools could be included in the city's community center project.
One of the questions the city has is if other agencies or groups interested in the site's preservation will help the city foot the bill to save it.
"We asked that question today and really did not receive any answers," Walhof said. "I would hope someone would step forward."
(This story contains information from The Associated Press)
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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