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Upstart foundation is working diligently to make Upper Las Vegas Wash a fossil bed national monument.
Photo: Elke Cote (all)
When you think of Las Vegas, the last thing you think of is the ice age, but not for long. The planning of an Ice Age Park in the Upper Las Vegas Wash, north of Las Vegas, is closer to becoming a reality thanks to the efforts of the Las Vegas Ice Age Park Foundation.
The wash, until recently considered a wasteland by most, was once a beautiful and thriving wetlands, home to hundreds of ice-age mammals. First explored in 1932 by Fenley Hunter and again in 1955 by a group of archaeologists, the area was found to have an abundance of carbon, obsidian, and numerous Pleistocene mammals, including the mammoth, ground sloth, camel, bison, a variety of horses, and the North American Jaguar.
Recognizing the area’s resources, the National Science Foundation funded the “Big Dig,” a major excavation project that the National Geographic Society documented, in 1962. The excavation included trenches that were 3,000 feet long, 30 feet deep, and 12 feet wide across the wash. Scientists studied strata dating as far back as 200,000 years, covering two ice-age periods. After the dig, a 1,000-acre parcel, including the Tule Springs Paleontological Site, located three miles east of Floyd Lamb Park, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since then, little else has been done to preserve, protect, or improve the area, which has succumbed to destruction by encroaching development, off-road vehicles, and garbage dumping. In 2002, the Upper Las Vegas Wash faced an even bigger threat when Congress designated the site as a disposal area, potentially allowing commercial development of this precious site.
The ensuing concerns and protests encouraged the Bureau of Land Management to begin an environmental impact study. Prior to the study, 36 power poles were placed across the wash displacing more than 9,700 fossil remains, which were collected and recorded by the San Bernardino Museum. Subsequently the BLM contracted the museum to explore the 13,000-acre study site by foot. The museum documented 438 surface fossil sites, some of which contained the Columbian Mammoth. Eric Scott, the museum’s paleontologist, and Kathleen Springer, curator, declared the area the most significant paleontological and geological site in the Great Basin.
In 2007, concerned individuals formed the Protectors of Tule Springs (POTS). The organization’s aim is to inform the public of the history and scientific importance of the upper Las Vegas Wash and help protect the area. In July of last year, Theodore Fremd, Science Advisor (Paleontologist) in the Pacific Southwest for the National Park Service, investigated the wash. In his report, Fremd stated, “The composite localities appear to contain the longest continuous section of Pleistocene strata spanning important global climate cooling and warming episodes…which could be globally significant” and that “the area should definitely receive protection to preserve the fossil resources.”
This January the BLM reclaimed a large portion of the land allocated for development. As of February 2010, no final decision on the total area has been made. “Now,” says Jill DeStefano, founder of POTS, “we are asking for the Congressional Delegation to pass into legislation the combination of the original 13,000-acre study site, plus an additional 10,000 to 15,000 acres to the north [which contains even larger deposits of fossils]. This we hope will be a national monument managed by the National Parks Service with the Ice Age Park to serve as its hub.”
The Las Vegas Ice Age Park Foundation, a nonprofit, was formed in 2008 to assist in the development of the Ice Age Park. Working closely with the University of Nevada, Protectors of Tule Springs, BLM, the State of Nevada, and other local agencies, a 316-acre state-owned site located in the heart of the Wash has been set aside to build the Ice Age Park.
Visionary plans include building a world-class research lab and repository facility for fossils excavated in Southern Nevada. Here, scientists can study fossil remains, human activity in the region, and climate change by tracking regional warming and cooling periods over the last 200,000 years. Picnic areas, hiking trails, and guided tours would allow the general public to view surface and excavated areas.
The Ice Age Park Foundation hopes to raise enough money to commission a full feasibility study for the project, envisioning a National Ice Age Park that would create new jobs, increase tourism, generate more revenue for the county, and foster educational programs in our schools.