As much as 87 percent of Nevada may be government land and, in a larger context, owned by all citizens, but when it comes to fossils, petroglyphs and ancient artifacts, it's hands off and illegal to take them.
"All things are protected, with the exception of trash," Kate Sorom, interpretive park ranger, said of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. "People are more than welcome to take as much of that out as they like."
There's a minimum $250 fine for taking rocks or fossils, but the judicial system decides the final amount based on the severity of the crime.
The Red Rock rangers hosted Celebrate National Fossil and Archeology Day on Oct. 20. It included the unveiling of a new exhibit that includes fossils of camel teeth and Colombian mammoth tusks. Called the Tule Springs Exhibit, it will be up until the end of the year. Call 702-515-5330 for more information.
The rangers used the opportunity to remind people not to take anything from the canyon.
Sorom said it's impossible to know how many people take things home, but fossils are found on even the most mundane rocks and could prove tempting. The canyon gets close to 2 million visitors a year. If each of those visitors took one item, she said, it would be detrimental for future visitors.
"It's a matter of putting it in perspective," Sorom said. "If, five years from now, 10 million people have taken a rock, that's a lot of rocks. ... We want to leave the fossils and leave all of that, everything, here for the next person who comes behind us so that they can enjoy it as (we) enjoy it."
Bulletin boards at each trail head caution visitors not to remove anything native to the park.
Meanwhile, paleontologists and archaeologists are having a field day with the recent discovery of the first fossilized dinosaur footprints documented in Nevada. The tracks are believed to have been made about 190 million years ago by the grallator, a two-legged, meat-eating reptile the size of a large dog. The rocks revealed there were also octopodichnus tracks, an arthropod similar to the modern scorpion.
"Red Rock Canyon has a pretty deep fossil history," said Josh Bonde, from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' Geoscience Department. "There are rocks out there that go all the way back to about 500 million years."
The tracks are in a secluded area and not where the public normally hikes. He said being found in the conservation area means that they can be well protected.
Residents are reminded that it is illegal to dig, remove or collect vertebrate fossils without a permit. Similarly, taking molds or castings, or applying anything to fossils including track ways is prohibited. Never drive over, walk on or sit on fossils.
Bonde said Red Rock Canyon is a very important area scientifically. It's also a desert, which means there's no decomposing organic matter hiding fossils.
"You have ... evidence (of) these ancient reefs, ancient Paleozoic fauna; you have evidence for dinosaurs running around 200 million years ago (on) sand dunes; you have evidence for mountain-building events which are 100 million years old, all within one little area," he said.
Almost weekly, someone will bring a find into the visitor center and ask what they've found, Sorom said. The rangers use it as an educational opportunity.
If the threat of a federal offense isn't enough to dissuade people from taking rocks or fossils, the canyon itself has a way of dealing with theft: a curse. Sorom said out-of-town visitors are continually sending back rocks.
"It kind of, I guess, goes back to the myth in Hawaii - you know, if you take volcanic rock, the goddess Pele rains bad luck down on you," she said. "We don't promote anything like that; I've never had a story like that told to me about rocks in Red Rock Canyon, but we get people who send them back (with a note) saying, 'We're all sorry we took this. Ever since we brought it home, bad things seem to occur, so we're returning this rock. We knew we weren't supposed to take it, but we did anyway.' "
Residents who discover tracks at Red Rock Canyon can call 702-515-5350 and provide information about the location. Photographs are helpful.
Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2949.