Las Vegas Sun

November 23, 2017

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Protector of the wash

Jill DeStefano moved away from Florida to get away from incessant development. Southern Nevada probably wasn't the best choice for someone looking for a quiet place.

Now she's even more fed up with seeing greenery become part of a sprawling concrete jungle.

So the 51-year-old retiree has decided to take action instead of simply complaining.

Although she has been living in North Las Vegas' Sun City Aliante for only about six months, she's already aiming to be a community leader, something she acknowledges she has never done before.

DeStefano wants to head a group aimed at saving the Upper Las Vegas Wash from development, despite only recently learning about the 12,000-year history of the wash, which is less than a mile from her home.

"I just couldn't believe they were thinking about paving it over," DeStefano said, looking at a federal Bureau of Land Management map. "I was appalled."

The wash, which runs across the northern edges of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, used to be patrolled by woolly mammoths. Countless important fossils have been found in the desert dirt.

Today it's only feet from some of the nicest developments in the valley and few animals are found in the area, except for pets and pigeons hunting for scraps in a drugstore parking lot.

Friends of the Upper Las Vegas Wash will hold its first meeting in January, and DeStefano has about 150 people interested in joining the group.

She has a lofty long-term goal: ensuring that the 13,000 acres become a national conservation area, complete with trails and educational resources similar to Red Rock Canyon.

"Once I learned about the area and that there was something to preserve, I felt we should preserve it," she said.

The BLM and Utah State University are seven months into a 30-month study looking at the impact of developing the area. In addition to potentially destroying mammal fossils, development could harm rare plant species, including Las Vegas buckwheat poppy.

The BLM is preparing to restrict access to at least some of the area to keep dirt bike riders from tearing up land now home to fossils and foliage.

"Right now, what we're trying to do is some interim protection measures so the wash doesn't deteriorate," said Gayle Marrs-Smith, BLM conservation transfer area project manager. "We won't be fencing in the entire wash."

Residents living nearby could soon receive a questionnaire from researchers aimed at gathering social and economic information about the community.

DeStefano hopes her group can use the survey as a way to raise awareness about the wash. She won't be alone in her efforts, as several groups are already part of a save-the-wash movement.

Jane Feldman, an activist with the Las Vegas arm of the national Sierra Club, has been outspoken about her desire to limit or eliminate development in the wash.

"Development just really isn't compatible with much of that area," she said. "I have some real big concerns. I and the Sierra Club are on the record with those comments ... It's a tremendously fragile desert with incredibly precious plants and fossils up there."

In addition, Scenic Nevada, a statewide conservation group, named the wash one of 13 places statewide "at risk of being lost due to neglect, lack of funding, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy."

Another ally could be the North Las Vegas Alliance of Homeowners Associations and Concerned Citizens.

"Why must we have asphalt on every piece of land?" asked Richard Cherchio, organizer of the group. "If they pave this over, it's gone forever."

However, local cities and developers have made no secret about their wish to build on at least part of the wash. The cities favor preserving only 3,300 acres.

Las Vegas officials had planned to spend millions of dollars installing infrastructure to serve development on the 7,600 acres - about 12 square miles - the city controls.

North Las Vegas, meanwhile, is concerned because preserving lands would eliminate its ability to auction off land to facilitate the rapid expansion of the second-fastest-growing city in the country.

It's likely that at least part of the wash will be covered by housing in the next decade. But at the very least, it appears that the BLM will preserve the 5,300 acres that have been removed from the federal auction block.

DeStefano, saying she is nervous about the land's future, has the time and will to fight for her beliefs.

And all 13,000 acres.

"I think we all come from big cities in one way or the other," DeStefano said. "And we've all seen Red Rock. It's like, wouldn't that be great to have right outside our door?"

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