coached the cross country team. She used to send her runners out to
practice in the chalky hills now proposed for federal protection as
Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument.
"It's neat to be able to come out here and see what the scientists are actually finding," she said.
Bills establishing the 22,650-acre national monument were introduced in the House and Senate in late June, but neither measure has advanced since then. There is still a slim chance the lands bill could win approval during the current lame-duck session of Congress, but most likely it will be left for dead until next year.
In the meantime, researchers continue to collect bones and make surprising discoveries in the Upper Las Vegas Wash.
"As we say, our science is only as good as our last field season," said Eric Scott, who serves as curator of paleontology for the San Bernardino County Museum and drives around the wash in an SUV with plates that read "FOSSILS."
Springer said the research team hopes to start publishing its findings next year in a series of papers that should serve to "elevate the Las Vegas formation to this glorious thing we now know it to be."
"There's a quarter of a million years of time recorded here, and there are fossils almost all the way through," she said.
In one of the most exciting discoveries, geologist Craig Manker has been able to establish a fine chronology of climate events in the wetlands that once existed here. Those abrupt changes appear to coincide almost exactly with broader climate events identified using ice cores from Greenland, Springer said.
Ultimately, the more we know about ancient climate change, the better chance we have of understanding what is happening now, Springer said. "The past is prologue."
Researchers also are using the thousands of bones they have found from a wide range of time periods to test various ideas about what caused the mass extinction of the large ice age mammals about 10,000 years ago.
Some blame climate change. Others suspect the animals were killed off by a disease , hunting by early humans or even a comet colliding with the planet.
"That's a subject still up for debate," said Scott, who has his own hypothesis involving giant herds of bison. "This area is a perfect lab for testing all of that."
There is certainly no shortage of research materials.
At one site Scott called the "super quarry," the San Bernardino County team used hand trowels and paintbrushes to untangle a pile of 500 individual bones packed into a hole smaller than a UPS truck. The haul included five tusks from at least three mammoths.
Scott said the spot didn't look like much at first - just a small scattering of bone at the surface - but after a year of digging, it ranked as the biggest site that has ever been found in a wash littered with big sites.
Today, all that is left is the hole they dug, which has since been tagged with graffiti on one 8-foot wall.
Springer said it's a perfect illustration of the important role site stewards play in an area filled with scientific treasures but heavily scarred by ATV tracks and illegal trash dumps.
It speaks to why the area deserves more federal protection and why it needs people like Weidknecht looking out for it until that happens.
"Las Vegas is built on this stuff," Springer said of the fossil- rich earth in which her team will continue to work until at least 2014.
"This is the last bastion of this deposit left. After this, it's gone."
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