Tule Springs, With Its Rare Collection Of Prehistoric Fossils, Promoted For National Monument Status

Lynn Davis and Christina Kamrath going into the Upper Las Vegas WashPointing out a fossil

Lynn Davis and Christina Kamrath going into the Upper Las Vegas Wash at Tule Springs. Ms. Davis points out a fossil. Photographs by Danny Bernstein.

"Now, I'm not taking you to a scenic spot," Lynn Davis warns me. "But Tule Springs is a significant place and will soon be a national park monument."

Ms. Davis' enthusiasm is infectious. And it's easy to see why.

Tule Springs harbors a hotbed of ice-age fossils ranging from Columbia mammoths, bison, and camelops (a larger version of today's camels) to even American lions. The site has fossils dating from as long ago as 250,000 to a relatively more recent 7,500 years ago. As the name implies, this area once was lush with springs, water that nourished vegetation and lured animals.

But the site is somewhat out-of-place when one considers the typical national park setting. Not found far from urban areas or surrounded by forest land and even high desert, Tule Springs is just 30 minutes from downtown Las Vegas and half a mile from the Aliante Casino. It lies below the Sheep Mountain Range where the Desert Wildlife Refuge -- the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states-- begins.

Almost 23,000 acres of this landscape are owned by BLM, while another 315 acres belongs to the state. If proponents get their way, this acreage will eventually belong to the National Park Service and further bolster Las Vegas' tourism offerings.

What's To See At Tule Springs

Ms. Davis, a senior program manager in the National Parks Conservation Association Nevada Field Office, is taking Christina Kamrath, who works in the organization's Washington, D.C., office, and me to Tule Springs to show off its potential as a national monument.

We park across the street from the Sun City Aliante Retirement Community. Two rows of utility poles divide the area. "The utility company is the only hold-up," Ms. Davis replies when asked what's holding back the inclusion of the site into the National Park System. NV Energy wants to erect more poles across the landscape, right up to the Sheep Mountain Range.

While fossils are the main attraction of the site, the landscape can't be ignored. The earth is cracked and dry, but the desert has plenty of life. When I rub the leaves of a creosote bush, my hand smells just as the name implies. Occasional barrel cactus will soon turn pink. Rodents dart in their holes so quickly that even Ms. Davis can't identify them. But it's the fossils that have everyone excited.

How did this place get overlooked until now?

The history goes something like this:

The fossil beds were first studied in 1933 by Fenley Hunter of the American Museum of Natural History. In the 1960s, an army of paleontologists and geologists arrived to see if human beings had been hanging around with Ice Age mammals.

Ms. Davis calls it the "Big Dig," and evidence remains today.

"Construction equipment dug big trenches," she said, shaking her head. "You can still see them."

Without a human connection, the scientists moved on. No one else paid attention and the site was forgotten. But then Las Vegas exploded, development kept expanding out far from the famous Strip, and Tule Springs soon was on the front burner again, but not necessarily for scientific reasons. Rather, the BLM put Tule Springs under "disposal consideration," which meant that the agency could sell the land.

In the early 2000s, the local power company built a power corridor. When crews started digging to place their poles, they found fossils. BLM called in experts to survey the site. With significant fossils lying out on the ground, locals started paying attention. A friends group, Protectors of Tule Springs, was formed, and soon connected with NPCA.

Then the Park Service asked Theodore Fremd, a noted NPS paleontologist, to look over the site in 2009. His report states that "the area should definitely receive protection to preserve the fossil resources."

After the Tule Springs project received publicity, the BLM fenced off the road to the land, trying to protect it from fossil looters.

Protection Needed

We walk cross-country. I'm accustomed to trails between two rows of trees, and keep looking for landmarks. I take a compass setting toward our car. The mountains look further away than when we started. Ms. Davis points out ATV tracks, and even a flat area where off-road enthusiasts did circular donuts with their vehicles. Shotgun shells and household garbage remain even though groups of supporters have had several clean-up outings. From here, you can see a water tank and a shooting range.

We climb into the Upper Las Vegas Wash. There's not much evidence of water now, but the bottom of the wash is a wide road, big enough to accommodate trucks. The sides of the wash tower over us. Rusty cans and cooking equipment lie around, maybe from old fossil hunters who camped here.

Ms. Davis has been working on this project almost four years. Like a bride planning a wedding, she can picture all the details of this site if it becomes National Park Service property.

"They'll build a shade structure over this road. The area will be restored with native plants. There will be a visitor center. UNLV (University of Nevada at Las Vegas) will have a Geoscience campus on the edge of the monument," she tells me.

Monitoring The Fossils

We turn a corner and the power lines disappear from view. We head toward Baby Tule, a disturbed fossil site that is shown to visitors.

Ms. Davis, along with 200 volunteers, has been trained to be a site steward, creating a presence on this patch of land and told to watch for vandalism.

"When you find your first fossil, it's like a drug experience," Ms. Davis says. "You can't touch the fossil. You photograph it, you GPS it and send it to the paleontological team."

A contract group is working at the site identifying and cataloguing fossils. We scramble up to a small mound, and Ms. Davis warns Ms. Kamrath and me to watch where we put our feet. The orange bits on the ground could be fossils.

An outline of a leg bone and joint is faintly visible under the sand. A mammoth possibly died here. Columbia mammoths ate 300 to 500 pounds of vegetation a day, a diet that helped them achieve their huge size, which in turn generated big fossils under the right conditions.

"The wind blows, the rains come, and fossils come up," Ms. Davis says, explaining why there's need for Park Service protection here.

Creating A National Monument

To create a national monument, the scientific value of this site has to be coupled with public support. The friends group had recognized the importance of the area. It worked bottom up to educate the public. NPCA works top down. The Nevada congressional delegation, the mayor and city council of both Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, and the Clark County commissioners are part of a large coalition of supporters.

The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe has a golf course, a gas station, and a minimart at the edge of the site. They would become the de facto concessioners if a national monument is created. Even the U.S. Air Force has signed on to protect the site from development since the air space above Tule Springs is an important security corridor.

Ms. Davis expects enabling legislation to be introduced into Congress very soon. While the road to final inclusion into the park system can be long, she's already seeing a "Tule Springs National Monument."

"To start with, we could have a temporary visitor center in the city. This might become the Woods Hole of paleontology," she says, referring to the Oceanographic Institution of that name on Cape Cod.

But first, Congress has to agree.

Comments

OK, I see the philosophy emerging for expanding the national park system. We're gonna be recreating in BONE DRY DESERT. Hey, there's a billion acres of it. I see a nice campsite over in the south west corner. Not a tree in sight. What else is government leading us toward? Military parks. Hey, I can go there to relax at the site of the first atomic bomb explosion. How bout the industrial wasteland national park with the busy streets and honking horns. Get real! There's a great piece of granite over there that nobody is using. That's a national park quality piece of granite.
What the world really needs is to protect habitat. That's what is going as extinct as the dinosaurs. There are habitat types, like the ancient forests, that have miniscule representation in protected areas because those habitats are worth money to people. That's the kind of national parks we need! We need to set asside great big expanses of the stuff of the Earth that is usefull to people, and essential to certain rare animals and plants that are getting shafted by our quest for resources. If we don't come around and see this, we're going to be sitting on a rock in a bone dry desert waiting to become just like those dinosaurs, because that's all that will be left for us.
So let's talk here about the Tongass, the Klamath-Siskiyou, and the Maine Woods. Those are national parks that need to be made RIGHT NOW.

Tule Springs has 250,000+ uninterrupted years of Ice Age geologic history. This spans multiple global warming and cooling events and shows that the large animals of this period survived these major events until some event about 10,000 years ago. That event could be discovered here. The science of these global warming and cooling periods will help to educate the public as to why we want to preserve other special places in this Country, and, to continue the funding for the precious parks we already have.

My husband and I have been fortunate enough to visit 80+ National Park managed units. We have seen the incredible scenery of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Acadia, and the Everglades. We have been educated by the excellence of Ranger led talks in Gettysburg and Boston. Unfortunately, for a majority of America’s children today, families cannot afford to pack up and go away for several days to a National Park. The Park Service has recognized this and worked the Urban Park into their plans. Tule Springs is a perfect example of an Urban National Park; an educational laboratory for our children on the edge of a major metropolitan area.

The Science and educational possibilities of Tule Springs will be never ending, bringing future generations the thrill of finding their very first fossil.

To “we need to do better”:

As an ecologist living in Las Vegas and working for the Center for Biological Diversity, let me assure you that while minor portions of the proposed national monument have been badly abused, it is not an “industrial wasteland”, and provides natural, cultural, and scientific treasures that are unique and unmatched.

The proposed monument area provides a home for several rare and imperiled species.

The Las Vegas bearpoppy is a magnificent plant with hairy silver leaves and striking yellow-orange flowers. It is protected as critically imperiled under Nevada State law and would easily merit protection under the federal Endangered Species Act should state law prove inadequate. The proposed monument is one of only a dozen or so places on the planet where the Las Vegas buckwheat occurs. This plant has been found to be warranted for protection under the Endangered Species Act and is awaiting final actions by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Threatened Mojave desert population of the desert tortoise roams the washes and bajadas of the proposed monument, as do kit foxes, burrowing owls, rare and common songbirds, and numerous species of mammals and reptiles.

Yes, all this right PLUS the fossils adjacent to the developed areas in the Las Vegas Valley – which is why this land is so threatened and deserving of national monument protections!

As commenter Jill DeStefano noted, the research and scientific value of 200,000+ years of natural and climate history stored in the soils of the proposed monument are immense.

An interesting fact is that the area, prior to 2002 when Congress made it available for sale by the BLM to private developers, was designated as a Wilderness Study Area. Such a designation today is inappropriate, but not so that of a national monument, which would protect this truly unique and special area for current and future generations of nature lovers, recreationists and scientists.

New national parks should preserve biological diversity, as the Center for Biological Diversity, for which you work, should know. Biological diversity is taking a huge dive because congress keeps on setting aside the same kind of habitat: bone dry desert, granite cliffs: anything that adds up to a lot of acres yet doesn't get in the way of human resource extraction. The places we need to preserve RIGHT NOW are the places that get squarly in the way of resource extraction. These are the habitats that are the most endangered! The Maine Woods, the Tongass and the Klamath-Siskiyou forests, places where thousands of rare living things thrive without human intervention. Take a look at www.ancientforestnationalpark.org

Dear We Need to know better: You are right about so many live, abundant areas that need to become national parks. I have been to all the spots you have mentioned, and they are amazing. Each area has something wonderful and unique about it and I hope they are there to take my grandchildren to explore. But that does not take away from the uniqueness of the Tule Springs site. It may not have trees and perfect camping areas, but it has such a depth of paleontological history that can be shared with everyone. My grandchildren would love touching and seeing old bones in their natural setting; or participating in a "dig" to learn about our past. This site is worthy of National status. It does not take away from your choices - it just provides options.

I would love to see Tule Springs become a national monument. Think of the outstanding educational opportunities it offers for adults as well as children. What a great, not to mention easily accessible, place for schools to take children on field trips, to teach them about past life and geology, and to incite them to imagine future life, and the importance of protecting biodiversity.

Thank God someone is finally going to be guardian to this area. I live adjacent to it and have watched in horror as burrowing owl habitat was destroyed for a detention basin, as were some of the remaing springs. Numerous calls to the National Audubon Society,The National Park Service, Fish and Game, Parks and Recreation and even Channel 13 all went unanswered. Unfortunately the recent damage is completed, but having a steward for the protection of the remaining area would be a welcome relief.

A bill has now been introduced in Congress to create a monument under NPS jurisdiction. We'll see if the partisans will agree to pass something constructive.