I-Team Investigation: Mammoth Mistake in Northeast Las Vegas - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Chief Investigative Reporter

I-Team Investigation: Mammoth Mistake in Northeast Las Vegas

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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. 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.
The skeleton of an Ice Age horse. The skeleton of an Ice Age horse.
The skeleton of a mammoth from the Ice Age. The skeleton of a mammoth from the Ice Age.

The northeast part of the Las Vegas Valley holds treasures, but archeologists 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 guess what's threatening the idea? Growth.

Helen Mortenson, a Tule Springs preservationist, said, "You can walk anywhere around here and it's amazing what you can find."

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.

"You would have seen families and herds of mammoths and you would have seen the American lion, which is bigger than the African lion, stalking and trying to get the baby mammoth. You would see camels. You would see the Ice Age horse here. And they had sloths, and they had bison. You would see huge herds going back and forth as far back as 100,000 years," Helen Mortenson explained.

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 there to hunt. Mammoth tusks poke out of the soil. And 400 new mammoth sites have been identified in the past two years, and those are just what have been found on the surface.

Mortenson said, "This is a mammoth tooth that came form the Gilcrease site. This is one of four teeth that's in a mammoth's mouth."

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 Bureau of land Management to put 12,000 acres on its disposal list, meaning, it could be sold to developers, allowing homes to be built right up to the edge of the wash itself, and maybe over it.

Jill Destefano said, "Once it's gone, it's gone. You're not going to have mammoths running through here anytime soon unless it's going to be an Ice Age."

Destefano has joined with her neighbors to push for bestowing national park or national landmark status on the entire 12,000 acres. She 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 schools, and a tourist attraction bigger and better than La Brea tar pits.

Helen Mortenson queried, "Why not a whole new venue out here that can attract a whole different clientele?"

"We want the tourists to be able to come and watch the excavations taking place," said Jill Destefano.

The project received a small grant from the state. The proponents say everyone who's 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 was unaware of the proposal for an Ice Age park, even though it's been on the drawing board for a couple of years.

The decision may hinge on an environmental assessment now being conducted by BLM. BLM scientists, sympathetic to the goals of the preservationists and aware of the importance of the site, initiated a second environmental assessment. One issue of concern: if the area is built over, what happens to the flood waters that have poured through the wash for centuries? It has to go somewhere.

Even without plugging up the wash, development will change the area forever.

Jill Destefano added, "The bad case scenario is 20 years from now, we see houses right up to the wash itself, which, who knows what the environmental impact will be."

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

WARNING: It is a federal offense to take fossils off public lands.

E-mail your comments to Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp.

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