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October 21, 2014

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PARKS:

Tule Springs preservation prospects take off

Obama administration shows interest in fossil-rich area in northern valley

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Tiffany Brown

Calcium carbonate deposits are seen in the Elington Preserve area of the the upper Las Vegas wash in North Las Vegas, Nevada on Wednesday Aug. 12, 2009.

Tule Springs

Excavation technician for the San Bernardino County Museum, Quintin Lake, adds water to soften the soil while working on uncovering body parts of a Columbian Mammoth in the upper Las Vegas wash in North Las Vegas on Thursday Aug. 13, 2009. Launch slideshow »

A massive swath of Las Vegas Valley teeming with ice age fossils could become a national monument operated by the National Park Service as soon as next year.

The designation could come from President Barack Obama or through an act of Congress. Both routes appear wide open.

Even the leader of the group of northern valley residents known as the Protectors of Tule Springs, which has spent the past three years working to preserve the area and has rounded up 10,000 petition signatures, is surprised at how much momentum the effort has picked up in recent months.

“This has become more than anything I have ever imagined,” said Protectors founder Jill DeStefano, a retired businesswoman.

That feeling extends all the way to Washington, D.C., where Ron Tipton talks almost giddily about the sea change in attitudes toward national parks fostered by the new administration.

“The political climate for national parks is the best it’s been in decades,” said Tipton, senior vice president of policy for the National Parks Conservation Association, a 90-year-old organization dedicated to preserving and growing the nation’s park system.

Tipton spoke to the Sun last week just after meeting with some of the president’s senior staff involved in national park issues. “One topic was ‘How do we move ahead to expand the park system?’ ” he said.

Tipton’s organization has recommended 20 areas ripe for national park or monument status, with the Vegas fossil beds being near the top of the list. The site is so well-suited for federal involvement that Tipton said it could happen as soon as next year.

To start with, the national park system has nothing quite like it right now, and the site’s fossils are of “national and probably international significance,” he said. Plus, it is federal land, so the parks system wouldn’t have to buy it.

And it is chock-full of fossils.

On a recent trek into the area with paleontologists Quintin Lake and Craig Manker, excavation technicians at the San Bernardino County Museum, Lake stopped now and then to point out a fossilized bone shard that looked like stone to the untrained eye. He slid into a gully to get a closer look at two dirty white horizontal, 8-inch circles, patterned like tree rings, in the side of the gully about two feet apart — cross-sections of mammoth tusks. Lake wondered aloud whether a full skeleton was waiting to be excavated behind those tusks.

Further on is a small site where Lake had sliced earth layers and brushed aside dirt to unearth what was obviously a vertebra, about six inches across. Miles away is another find, this one by Manker, of a camel foot fossil jutting from a gully wall and a toe bone perfectly aligned but separated from it a few feet away.

But also scattered throughout the gully are old signs for a homebuilder, broken beer bottles and discarded furniture. Always present are the clear tracks of dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles.

Manker said the recession in Vegas is a “blessing in disguise” because it slowed development and gave the Tule Springs preservation idea time to solidify and advance.

In a report to the National Park Service, Lynn Davis wrote that the nearly 10,000 fossils found in the area, most stored in climate-controlled cases in San Bernardino, represent only about 1 percent of the original fossil bed.

Davis’ appeal for Park Service involvement followed a five-page memo that Ted Fremd, a renowned Park Service paleontologist, sent to the regional director of the Interior Department last week.

Fremd was commissioned by the Park Service to evaluate the area and had spent two days in April walking the thousands of acres with paleontologist Kathleen Springer, senior curator of geological sciences of the San Bernardino County Museum.

Fremd noted the area’s importance with as much effusiveness as a scientific report allows.

“This is an excellent opportunity to fuse the paleontological view of ‘deep time’ with modern habitat degradation and implications of these changes on a landscape scale,” he wrote. “Rather than a detriment, the (Las Vegas Wash) actually offers a remarkable opportunity for people to see the effect of global climate change and man’s heavy hands on the land. The interpretive opportunities are tremendous.”

His words ring true as you stand in front of Lake’s mammoth vertebra, then look up to see Aliante Station resort while an F-15 fighter jet booms by thousands of feet overhead. The jets are reminders that Nellis Air Force Base has expressed its strong support for preservation of the acreage.

Fremd also mentioned in his report that existence of numerous “black mats,” decomposed remains of organic material, may hold the key to a theory that meteor impacts led to the extinction of ice age mammals.

The area is on the Register of National Historic Places because in the early 1960s, it was the first place radiocarbon dating was tested. Carbon dating is a way to estimate the age of organic material by counting the number of carbon-14 particles that remain. That test took place after scientists found the remains of ice age horses, lions, mammoths and sloths on the site.

The area “was a big deal back then,” said Springer of the San Bernardino County Museum. “Then people kind of went away.”

The key to preserving the area is spreading information about it to more people, Springer added. To that end, she and others met with Protectors of Tule Springs Saturday, training them to look for fossils and in how to mark their locations on GPS units that they will borrow. Eventually, these “stewards” will be trained in excavation of sites with the supervision of a trained paleontologist.

“The coolness factor of this place is obvious to us,” Springer said. “But getting that word out is really our job now.”

Some in the political spectrum locally seem to be buying in. The reason: Tourists spend big in and around National Park Service facilities. DeStefano has heard from park aficionados that hundreds of thousands of people come into Las Vegas each year only to then drive out of state to visit Park Service sites that are within a few hours away.

“Why not keep them here to stay at our hotels and eat in our restaurants?” she said.

North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck said designation of the area, which crosses into North Las Vegas, as a national monument “would be an amazing blessing, a great opportunity. We have nothing like that here. Think of how school kids could take advantage of it.”

In Las Vegas, Mayor Oscar Goodman told the Sun he’d be against it if it cut off the city’s access to the valley further north. “We’d be landlocked,” he said.

DeStefano said land around U.S. Highway 95, stretching north into the valley, would be available for city growth.

Commissioner Tom Collins, whose district includes some of the area, said he “loves” the idea. But before he drafts a resolution in its favor, he and Commissioner Larry Brown, whose district also includes part of the area, are waiting for the Bureau of Land Management to recommend how much acreage should be preserved. The BLM is considering a maximum of about 13,000 acres. Davis and others are hoping for 22,000 additional acres that stretch farther north.

As people here wait for the BLM’s move, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is moving forward.

Reid said Fremd’s report “highlights the scientific significance of the area,” adding that he plans to share the report with the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee “for consideration of special protection of this area.”

Congress isn’t the only avenue for creating a national monument, though. Unlike a national park, which can become a reality only through Congress, a national monument can be designated unilaterally by the president.

Davis and others say no matter which way it happens, they just want to seal the deal, so they’re gearing up for one more big push, one they hope will be the last one necessary.

“Now is the time, locally and federally,” Davis said.

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