SciSun: Betting on the Past, to save the Future   Leave a comment

Las Vegas is known for bright lights and stretch limos and expensive shopping. All the sights and sounds of a big city, surrounded by one of the most harsh and difficult natural environments in North America. While musical fountains dance and artificial waterfalls cascade into imitation lakes, just outside the city limits are miles and miles of desert. In many places, the-nothing-but-sand-and-rocks type desert that could be mistaken for a far-off foreign land. Yes, there’s life there – bighorn sheep, the threatened desert tortoise, burrowing owls, and even the bald eagle are just some of the wildlife that call this desert their home. While the plant life may seem sparse, in fact hundreds of species can be found including the rare Las Vegas Bear Poppy and Las Vegas Buckwheat. And most importantly, there’s water – natural springs feeding dozens of small lakes are irresistible (and necessary!) to the many fish, insect and bird species that live in the area and to the passers-by who are migrating. In fact the lakes are clue to hidden supplies of groundwater that allow this desert life to thrive.

And Las Vegas wants this groundwater. (Can never have enough swimming pools and aqua-gymnastics shows, you know. Particularly in an area that barely has enough water for drinking and bathing). Since the 1960’s the city has been ever-expanding, building further and further out into the desert, and taking more and more water to serve its needs. One of the next places identified for urban growth is Tule Springs and the Upper Las Vegas Wash, thousands of acres of land that various owners have, over the past hundred years, tried to make into a livestock ranch; a small community; and a leisure ranch. None of the ideas succeeded (although there are enough abandoned historical buildings still standing that the area is listed on the National Register of Historical Places). Today, the land is owned by the US and state governments, so it was assumed there should be no problem with the Las Vegas plans of developing the area into homes and businesses and green-grass lawns that require more water than can be spared.

Until the fossils were discovered. Fossils that show that from 200,000 to 7,000 years ago, Tule Springs and the Upper Las Vegas Wash were rich, spring-fed meadows and marshes filled with lush vegetation and dozens of species of now-extinct animals like the giant Columbian Mammoth, ground sloth, American Lion, prehistoric bison, and early horse-ancestors less than half the size of our modern horse. Early humans lived in the area also, hunting (and probably being hunted!) – based upon early tools, scientists think this may be one of the most distinct, and one of the last remaining large areas, where the lives of Ice Age animals and Ice Age men can be studied.

This land, and what can be learned from it, is so important the BLM (Bureau of Land Management – part of the US Government responsible for public lands) recently decided to set aside over 10,000 acres for preservation and further study; and support is growing that could one day make the area into a National Park or National Monument.

LasVegas Wash1 BLM

Try to picture more green, less tan. More water, less sand. And more Mammoths, in general.

There’s still a lot of work to be done – from organizing and planning, to patrolling the area, to cleaning the trash people have decided to dump on this ‘vacant’ land over the years. But if you listen very carefully, you might hear the footsteps of Mammoths approaching from the past. And to our ears, that’s a much better sound than the ringing of slot machines.

Read more about the Ice Age land that became a Desert:

http://www.npca.org/news/magazine/all-issues/2010/summer/buried-treasures.html

http://www.fws.gov/desertcomplex/

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/evolution/end-big-beasts.html

Posted April 22, 2012 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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