In terms of some of the most compelling paleontological and paleoclimatological research questions of the early Twenty-First Century, Tule Springs is one of the most promising sites in North America. Such questions include: (1) How has the climate changed over the past 100,000 years and what processes have driven these changes?; (2) What caused North America’s magnificent megafauna to go extinct?; (3) How did ecosystems in the American Southwest respond to climate change during the Pleistocene period; and (4) What can all of this teach us about responses of biological communities to climate change that is happening now? Tule Springs is also an excellent place to engage the public in such questions. For example, evidence of climate change is conspicuous in the walls of the trenches left open from the 1962-63 excavation. Planning for the development and visitor enjoyment of the new national monument is just beginning. The NPS will post updates at www.nps.gov/tusk.
|The Creation of a National Monument(1): "The 113th Congress did an amazing thing shortly before adjourning in late December of 2014: it passed a bill. Specifically, it passed the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument Act, which created a new National Park Service unit on the northern margin of Las Vegas Valley. This legislative action was the culmination of several years of political spadework by a coalition of people in Southern Nevada. The political effort was coordinated by the National Parks Conservation Association, with strong support from the Sierra Club and many other groups. Several local officials, especially Mayor John Lee of North Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, lobbied hard for the passage of this bill, hopeful that a fossil-themed national monument would broaden Southern Nevada’s tourism base and encourage non-gaming visitors to linger longer in the Las Vegas area before heading off to the Grand Canyon, Zion, Death Valley, or other destinations. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev) and his staff took the lead in drafting the Tule Springs bill, and Congressman Steven Horsford (D-Nev) played a key role in shepherding it through the recalcitrant House Subcommittee on Public Lands. The National Park Service―all the way up to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell―was supportive of adding Tule Springs to their portfolio, especially because it is adjacent to an urban setting, thus providing opportunities for a national-park experience for people who may never visit national parks in more remote settings. |
NPS paleontologists are excited because Tule Springs will be the first NPS unit―of which there are more than 400―specifically dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of Pleistocene Ice Age fossils. The bill was cosponsored by the entire Nevada congressional delegation (three Democrats and three Republicans-not known for holding hands and singing kumbayah), and endorsed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Nevada legislature. There was no organized opposition. And, oh yes, the site is loaded with Ice Age fossils, going back in time at least three times as far as those at the famous La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. With all of this going for it, future visitors to the national monument might think that its creation was a veritable “walk in the park.” They would be wrong.
Up to the day Congress passed this bill, its fate was uncertain. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex), for example called the bill (which transferred the management of a parcel of federal land from the Bureau of Land Management to the NPS) a “massive land grab,” and he tried to prevent its passage. With time running out for the 113th Congress, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid found a way to finesse the Tule Springs bill through the Congressional juggernaut. He attached it to the must-pass Defense Appropriation Act, with the justification that it protected a critical, low-altitude, flight corridor for Nellis Air Force Base. Nellis AFB was, in fact, a valuable ally in promoting the creation of the new national monument. In the early 2000s, with the Southern Nevada economy booming, much of the now-protected land was being considered for sale by the Bureau of Land Management to developers, at the request of the cities of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas. Nellis AFB training exercises sometimes call for their pilots to fly low over the Tule Springs corridor, which would not be compatible with residential development. So the Air Force was understandably concerned. As events unfolded over subsequent years, Nellis quietly supported the non-development of the area. As it turned out, the support of the Air Force for the Tule Springs bill played an especially important―perhaps crucial―role in allowing the bill to be attached to the Defense Appropriation Act. The negotiation of military over flight protocols for the new national monument is a detail to be addressed later.
When the land was being considered for disposal by the BLM, a required paleontological survey turned up more than 400 previously unknown vertebrate fossil sites. Also, a biological survey revealed the presence of two sensitive plant species: bearpaw poppy (Arctomecon californica) and Las Vegas buckwheat (Eriogonum coymbosum var. nilesii). The BLM withdrew the land from immediate disposal, formed a community stakeholders’ group to explore management options, and commissioned a team of land-use consultants to provide professional advice. Then in 2007 and 2008 the economy tanked, hitting the Las Vegas housing market especially hard. The pressure to develop the BLM land dissipated faster than the pressure in a New England Patriots’ football, and momentum began to build within the environmental community to think big about the future of the fossil-rich Tule Springs land.
The concept of a fossil beds national monument began to gain traction, and a citizens’ group―Protect Our Tule Springs (POTS)―was created by energetic local residents to beat the drum. These POTS activists were critical in galvanizing public interest in the fossil resources of Tule Springs, gathering thousands of signatures on petitions to legislators, speaking to community groups and school kids, and button-holing legislators at every level of government. Giant casts of mammoth teeth were touched by countless people as they listened to the pitch for protection of the fossil-rich, crescent-shaped parcel on the northern edge of Las Vegas. Upon hearing about the Ice Age behemoths that populated Las Vegas Valley and were fossilized in the Tule Springs area, the most common response was “I had no idea.” POTS partisans sometimes joked that the national monument they were advocating should be named the “I-Had-No-Idea National Monument.” Far from a “walk in the park,” the creation of Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument was contingent upon this sequence of events, any one of which could have gone differently and scuttled the effort. Had the Tule Springs bill not finally squeaked through in the waning hours of the 113th Congress―and the waning hours of Harry Reid’s influence as Senate Majority leader―I’m doubtful that it would ever have been created at all.”
The Park’s Archaeological History: More than 80 years ago, when most of Las Vegas was clustered around Fremont Street, archaeologists began to unearth animal remains at Tule Springs. In 1933, the Tule Springs Expedition, led by Fernley Hunter, was the first major effort to explore the archaeological importance of the area surrounding Tule Springs. Fernley, of the American Museum of Natural History, found a bit of charcoal associated with bones of extinct camel, horse and bison. Later that year Mark Harrington and Ruth Simpson of the Southwest Museum found more charcoal and bones from camels, horses, mammoths and giant sloths sticking out of the desert's surface. Harrington and Simpson were hoping to find evidence that early humans had roamed the area 30,000 years ago, but the charcoal could not be related to people. When Simpson returned to the site in 1956, she found a scraper that was radiocarbon-dated older than 23,800 years. But scientists could not establish that the scraper had been left by humans that long ago.
Bill Gilcrease discovered the lower molar of a Colombian mammoth on a northeast corner of his land (The Gilrease Orchards) in the early 1960s. A 30-person team from New York, Nevada and California, under the auspices the Nevada State Museum, dug for more than four months from October 1962 until February 1963. Radiocarbon dating had just been developed as a technique for dating such things as charcoal and bones. This group of scientists wanted to use the new dating technique to find out when humans had arrived in North America. They confirmed that the area was home to Ice Age species as well as early North American Paleo-Indian peoples. Richard Shetler of the Nevada State Museum, arranged "the Big Dig" and directed the project. Geologist C. Vance Haynes studied the sedimentary layers, using radiocarbon dating to determine their ages. Animals discovered included ground sloths, mammoths, prehistoric horses, American camels and the first giant condors found in Nevada. For nearly a quarter million years — until around 7,000 years ago — this arid desert wash was a lush wetland, home to some of the most massive and unusual species ever to walk the continent. Dense with fossils of Ice Age lions, herds of bison, saber tooth cats and gargantuan Columbian mammoths, Tule Springs tells the story of survival, adaptation, evolution, and extinction.
|Endangered Plants and Area Wildlife (2): |
The Upper Las Vegas Wash supports four unique and imperiled plants. The Las Vegas buckwheat in the area is a species that has been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The Nevada Natural Heritage Program has also identified three additional plant species in the area - Merriam's bear poppy, the Las Vegas bearpoppy, and the halfring milkvetch - as imperiled. The area also supports Joshua trees and several species of cacti.
The Upper Las Vegas Wash provides important habitat for the threatened desert tortoise, burrowing owls, kit foxes and several other wildlife species that are recognized for protection under the Clark County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan. Four species of raptors utilize the Wash for meeting their habitat needs - kestrels, barn owls, burrowing owls, and great horned owls. The red-tailed blazing star bee, a little known or described species, is found in the Wash ecosystem and is considered as imperiled due to its rarity.
Proposed boundaries for the new fossil beds national monument abut the Desert Wildlife Refuge, home to more than fifty-two species of mammals, including desert bighorn sheep, and thirty-one species of reptiles and amphibians. The springs at the Corn Creek headquarters of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, immediately adjacent to proposed boundaries for the fossil beds national monument, have refugia for the Pahrump poolfish, a species protected as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act, as well as the Corn Creek springsnail, a species recognized as critically imperiled due to extreme rarity and immediate threats to its existence.
(1) March 2015 Issue of Desert Report – Article “The Mojave Desert's Newest National Park Service Unit - Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument” by Steve Rowland. Note: Steve Rowland is a paleontologist on the faculty of the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
(2) Center for Biological Diversity, FACT Sheet: Why the upper Las Vegas Wash (Tule Spring) should be managed as a fossil beds national monument, by the National Park Service. www.biologicaldiversity.org/publications/papers/TuleSprings.pdf