Missing From the System? Tule Springs Harbors Ice Age Fossils In An Urban Setting

Within sight of Las Vegas lies an unusual landscape that local officials hope merits national monument designation. Once a collection of lush wetlands, the proposed national monument is now an arid desert landscape. Within its soils are thousands of Ice Age fossils that represent nearly 200,000 years of life. Middle photos shows a team from the San Bernardino County Museum examining a Columbian mammoth fossil found on the ground's surface, while the bottom photo is of a fossilized horse tooth. At least two species of ancient horse have been identified in the Tule Springs area. Top photo courtesy of BLM, middle photo courtesy of Sandy Crouteau, bottom photo courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum.

Not far from the bright lights and card tables of Las Vegas there's a stretch of desert once so relished by developers that street names were attached to blueprints of suburbia. Now, though, that landscape and its unique collection of Ice Age fossils is being promoted as the country's next national monument.

"The BLM (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) had put the land into disposal consideration, meaning it was going through NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review to basically sell off to developers," recalls Lynn Davis, the National Parks Conservation Association's Nevada field office program manager. "All of these entities -- Clark County, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas -- basically had plans in different forms for urban development that would have directly added into their tax base.”

But instead the political entities came to see how the landscape around Tule Springs could add to that tax base without any development. They realized that a unit of the National Park System in their backyard could be an economic draw in and off itself.

“They clearly had to get to that mind-frame to give up areas that they had considered to be developed," said Ms. Davis.

Though legislation has yet to be introduced in Congress calling for a Tule Springs National Monument, the locals believe they have something monumental in the landscape and what it holds. On Thursday a team of paleontologists and geologists unearthed a 6- to 7-foot Columbian mammoth tusk from the area.

While the landscape is valuable wildlife habitat and holds potential for recreational trails, the fossil reserves alone merit the designation, local officials believe.

Fossils and fossilized pollen in the area span 7,000 to nearly 200,000 years ago, "offering important insight into at least two Ice Ages and multiple warming and cooling periods," according to an NPCA release. "A scientific team from the San Bernardino County Museum has mapped and chronicled thousands of Ice Age fossils in the area."

“The Las Vegas Valley is fortunate to be home to these amazing fossils, which tell us about the Earth’s history,” says Jill DeStefano, president of Protectors of Tule Springs. “We expect to establish this location as a model urban national park - a destination that attracts visitors and scientists from around the world, and that serves as a unique classroom for our local schools.”

The 23,000 acres proposed for the monument are located within 30 minutes of the Las Vegas Strip. Within those acres -- an arid desert wash dotted with scrappy salt brush -- are the remain thousands of fossils of Ice Age Columbian mammoths, massive bison and American lions, camelops (a larger version of today’s Bactrian camels), sloths the size of small sports cars, and at least two species of ancient horse, according to NPCA.

Local enthusiasm for "Tule Springs National Monument" is inspired by southern Nevada’s tourism-dependent economy. While gaming long has driven Las Vegas's economy, community leaders appreciate the value that a park unit can bring. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, approximately 15 percent of the 37 million visitors to Las Vegas report visiting such nearby national parks and national landmarks as the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Lake Mead, and Hoover Dam.

The drive for the national monument began more than a year ago. In November 2009, after a National Park Service report cited the site’s significance, the Clark County Commission, mayors and city councils of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, and the Tribal Council of the Southern Nevada Paiute Tribe unanimously passed resolutions asking Congress to legislate the new national park unit. Since then, community leaders and citizen groups have worked to define acreage and boundaries, and have started planning the park unit’s interface with nearby urban development.

"You have houses that back up onto this unit," Ms. Davis pointed out Thursday during a phone call from the site. "The development goes right up to the boundaries of this (proposed) national park unit. This will be an urban park unit to say the least because you have development that’s right at the fringes, and where there isn’t development you have an interesting dynamic where city planners are already looking at how they build interface with the national park unit to protect that interface.”

Agreed-upon boundaries for the proposed national monument encompass approximately 23,000 acres at the base of the Sheep Mountain Range. It adjoins the U.S. Fish and Wildlife-managed Desert Wildlife Refuge, the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states, providing options for vital wildlife corridors and habitat protection.

The area sustains four unique and imperiled plants, Joshua trees and several species of cacti, in addition to threatened desert tortoise, burrowing owls, kit foxes, raptors, kestrels, barn owls, great horned owls and sage grouse.

Whether the incoming Congress will support such a monument remains to be seen. owever, Ms. Davis believes the local support for a Tule Springs National Monument will help ease any concerns about such a designation.

"This is beyond conservationists saying let's protect this area. It really has been examined by local political officials as to what this brings to the local community," she said. "I think the Nevada congressional delegation can make a good case to their colleagues in Congress who may have issues with other (proposed designations). This is a unit of the Park Service that we expect will benefit a very tourism-driven economy in southern Nevada and which we’ve had bipartisan support for.”