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