Wheeler County, Oregon, is one of the poorest counties in the American West. And it's looking backwards in an effort to rekindle prosperity, back to a time when lakes and lush forests covered north central Oregon.

Correspondent Tom Banse has a story of creative thinking.

TOM BANSE reporting:

Arid and empty describes much of Wheeler County -- a few cows, even fewer people -- until we arrive in a tiny town with the apt name of Fossil, Oregon. Here a brighter future may lie buried behind the high school.

(Soundbite of walking across rocks)

This shale and dirt hillside is one of the rare places where anyone who pleases can pay $3 admission and then start hunting for 32-million-year-old fossils.

(Soundbite of trowel scraping rock)

Ms. KAREN MASSHOFF (Employee, Fossil Bed): Yeah, there's a little bit of a leaf left there. It's a little hard to say what that is at the moment. Yes -- oh, it looks like a Metasequoia. Indeed, it is.

BANSE: Karen Masshoff is the part-time fossil bed interpreter here. She says almost everyone leaves the pock-marked slope a winner.

Ms. MASSHOFF: Oh, something like a leaf, maybe some fish bone.

BANSE: Townspeople uncovered the ancient lakebed decades back, while carving into the hillside to expand a football field. It was a local curiosity until about six years ago. That's when a long-time county judge had an ah-ha! moment.

Jeanne Burch was at a conference listening to how the wind surfing Mecca of Hood River Oregon turned a former liability, the pesky wind, into an asset.

Judge JEANNE BURCH (Wheeler County Court): And they said you just have to look at what you have and I thought about that all the way home. And I looked around, and what do we have? We have rocks.

BANSE: Judge Burch set in motion what's now known as the Paleo Project. The idea is to turn the remarkable rocks and fossils of north central Oregon into an economic engine.

(Soundbite of adding machine)

Judge BURCH: One hundred and fifty thousand.

Judge Burch needs an adding machine to tote up all the grants the revival by fossils idea has attracted. The latest is a quarter million dollar earmark in the federal budget to help the town build a Paleontology institute, geared toward teachers, students and the public.

The National Park Service's Jim Hammett says half of him cringes every time visitors bag treasures from the public dig site. You can't take even a pebble from the nearby John Day Fossil Beds National Monument that he manages. But Hammett's other half thinks it's good to have a supervised outlet for the curious.

Mr. JIM HAMMETT, (Manager, John Day Fossil Bed National Monument): You know there are many road projects for example, where bulldozers have gone through sites and nothing has been recovered. So, where you have a site where you might be able to inspire the public, inform the public and educate the public, it's certainly far better than those instances where we destroy something and don't even know we're destroying it.

BANSE: Still, strolling down the sleepy main street of Fossil, population 450, you have to ask how realistic it is to expect the public to flock here. It's hours from any population center. Visitor amenities such as motel rooms are scarce and sometimes run down.

Economist Gary Smith of Washington State University studies the rural Northwest. He wishes there was a silver bullet for remote places like this but doubts fossil gathering is it.

Professor GARY SMITH (Economist, Washington State University): It seems like there might have been a lot of leaps of faith. It's kind of the 'Field of Dreams' issue, which is build it and they will come. That is a supply creates its own demand put into economic terms.

BANSE: County leaders readily admit the turnaround of one of the poorest quadrants of the West will be a long and arduous process. On the bright side, it's just a blink in geologic time.

Ms. MASSHOFF: Well, there's a very faint one of your Maple seed right there, 32.5 million years. And ...

BANSE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Banse in Wheeler County, Oregon.

HANSEN: For a web-based tour of the Paleo Project go to our website, ..TEXT: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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