Ice Age fossils in danger as Las Vegas expands to north


The northwest part of the Las Vegas valley holds treasure but archaeologists and developers see that Mother Lode very differently. It’s one of the richest deposits of Ice Age fossils in the entire world, providing clues about life on Earth 20,000 years ago. Local preservationists want to create an Ice Age park for tourists and scientists, but growth is threatening that plan. Investigative reporter George Knapp has the story.

Helen Mortenson doesn’t need much prompting to start talking about the Las Vegas Wash. Today, it’s dry and dusty, a place where people dump trash and race ATVs. But 20,000 years ago, it probably looked like a lush, wet marshland, a rich source of food for now extinct Ice Age species.

Helen Mortenson. (KLAS-TV)

“You would have seen families and herds of mammals. And you would see the American lion, which is bigger than the African lion, stalking and trying to get the baby mammoth,” Mortenson said. “You would see camels, you would see the Pleistocene Ice Age horse was here and it had the sloths. And bison, just these huge, huge herds going back and forth as far back as 100,000 years.”

The concentration of Ice Age fossils in this two-mile stretch of the wash is far greater and three times as old as the famous La Brea Tar Pits. This is also one of the oldest human encampments in North America. The first Americans were drawn here to hunt. Mammoth tusks poke out of the soil. Four hundred new mammoth sites have been identified in the past two years. And those are just what’s been found on the surface.

“This is a mammoth tooth that came from the Gilcrease site. This is one of four teeth that’s in a mammoth’s mouth,” Mortenson said.

The tooth of a woolly mammoth from the Las Vegas Wash in the northern part of the valley. (KLAS-TV)

Untold numbers of fossils have already been plowed under because of houses that creep ever closer to the wash. Even though this is on the National Register of Historic Places, Congress authorized the BLM to put 12,000 acres on its disposal list. That means it could be sold to developers, allowing homes to be built right up to the edge of the wash and maybe over it.

Jill De Stefano has joined with her neighbors to push for bestowing national park or national landmark status on the entire 12,000 acres.

“Once it’s gone. It’s gone,” De Stefano said. “You’re not going to have mammoths running through here anytime soon unless we go into an Ice Age.”

Jill De Stefano. (KLAS-TV)

De Stefano and Mortenson are spearheading a proposal to create the Tule Springs Ice Age Park, which would be an ongoing fossil dig for scientists, a learning center for area schools, and a tourist attraction bigger and better than La Brea Tar Pits.

“Why not a whole new venue out here that can attract a whole different type of clientele?” Mortenson asked.

“We want the tourists to be able to come and watch the excavations taking place,” De Stefano said.

The project received a small grant from the state. The proponents say everyone who has heard the idea likes it, but city officials in both Las Vegas and North Las Vegas are hinting that they want development on those acres so they can continue to grow.

Councilman Steve Ross, who represents the area, said he’s unaware of a proposal for an Ice Age park, even though it’s been on the drawing board for a couple of years.

The Las Vegas Wash in the northwest valley is packed with Ice Age fossils. (KLAS-TV)

The decision may hinge on an environmental assessment now being conducted by BLM scientists, who are sympathetic to the goals of the preservationists and aware of the importance of the site. The BLM has initiated a second environmental assessment. Another concern over development is floodwaters that have poured through the Las Vegas Wash for centuries. Flash floods have to flow somewhere, and even without plugging up the wash, development will change the area forever.

“The bad case scenario is that 10 years from now we see houses right up to the wash itself, which who knows what the environmental impact of that will be,” De Stefano said.

Preservationists are hoping that Nevada’s U.S. senators, Harry Reid and John Ensign, will help create a national park out of the Tule Springs acreage. But the proposal has a long way to go.

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