Monday, Dec. 22, 2014 | 6:15 p.m.
Nevada has a new national monument — and state leaders hope it will drive more visitors to the Las Vegas Valley and stoke the local economy.
“It’s a game changer not only for Las Vegas, but really for the entire country,” said Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman.
Spanning more than 22,000 acres of desert about 20 miles north of the Las Vegas Strip on a slice of the Paiute Indian Reservation, the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument is riddled with prehistoric animal bones.
Paleontologists, business groups and local governments have sought the designation for years, citing the area’s historical significance and its potential as a tourist attraction.
“Like a snail, this moved so slowly,” Goodman said.
After years of wrangling, Congress passed a bill earlier this month designating 22,650 acres in the area a national monument.
Republicans are often opposed to expanding federal control of land. But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., embedded the legislation — and seven other Nevada lands bills — in a must-pass defense bill earlier this month that cleared both chambers relatively quickly.
That victory brought dignitaries like Reid, Goodman and Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., to an ordinarily quiet banquet hall on the Paiute reservation Monday.
Located in the Las Vegas Wash, the rugged landscape of the new monument offers a glimpse at what the region looked like during the ice age. It’s there, where the bones and teeth of hundreds of species of mammals, rodents, amphibians and birds are well preserved, fossilized in the dirt.
The animals roamed, swam or flew more than 250,000 years ago, when Southern Nevada was home to the 12-foot-tall giant ground sloth; the American lion, a quarter larger than its African counterpart; larger ancestors of modern camels called camelops; and the 14-foot-tall Columbian mammoth, an herbivore that feasted on 500 pounds of vegetation every day.
More recently, the site was run by the Bureau of Land Management. Now, the BLM will begin the process of transferring ownership to the National Park Service.
State leaders believe it can become a community asset similar to the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles or Diamond Valley Lake, known as the “Valley of the Mastodons,” outside Hemet, Calif. Both sites feature visitor centers and museums where members of the public can learn about natural history.
Kristin McMillan, president and CEO of Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the Tule Springs site will increase “ecotourism” by drawing more visitors from around the globe and promote job growth, potentially providing clues to help scientists make sense of climate change and its effects on the Las Vegas landscape.
It is unclear exactly when the monument will begin to take shape.
“The public wants to know when and what will they see,” said Lynn Davis, Nevada field officer with the National Parks Conservation Association. “That’s a little bit premature.”
Mayor Goodman had some advice for the BLM, which now has to transfer the land to the National Park Service before the work to transform the monument begins.
“Please work quickly,” she said. “Not like government.”
Sun reporter Amber Phillips contributed to this report. The Associated Press contributed to this report.