Dunes design still undone

Concerned about ancient American Indian campsites and dwellings that might be buried in the sand, Clark County planners have sent back to the drawing board designs for paths and possibly boardwalks through Sunset Park’s dunes.

The revamped design and construction shouldn’t disturb archaeological sites or old-growth mesquite that provide food and habitat for a state-protected bird, the phainopepla, planning manager Bruce Sillitoe said Tuesday.

He said the final design must meet the approval of the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office, where the design will be sent for recommendations.

Sillitoe said the decision to revisit the design by Southwick Landscape Architects was made at a recent meeting after issues about American Indians’ presence there centuries ago were raised by consulting archaeologist Heidi Roberts.

"Hopefully they don’t have to mitigate anything by designing trails around the sites where artifacts appear," Roberts said Tuesday.

"The concern is what we see from the surface might be the tip of the iceberg," Roberts said.

Such was the case in 2003 when a dig along Las Vegas Wash near Lake Las Vegas turned up the circular floor of an ancient pit house. It was the first confirmed evidence that aboriginal people lived along Las Vegas Wash 1,400 years ago and weren’t just passing through the valley in pursuit of food and game.

In the case of the Sunset sand dunes, pottery shards, arrowheads and stone tools were collected by a University of Nevada, Las Vegas team led by Claude Warren in the 1970s.

Roberts said the presence of screwbean mesquite trees along Duck Creek could have been a source of food for ancient dwellers. "We assume they are the ancestors of the Southern or far Western Puebloans," she said.

Sillitoe said the design to accommodate "legitimate users" will help the effort to wrest the fragile sand dunes away from the homeless and vandals who have littered the area with their own encampments. Some camps are complete with bed spreads, discarded vegetable cans and blue jeans draped from low-lying trees.

"I think we need to take back the dunes," Sillitoe said before a short hike along one of the established routes south of the regional park’s lake.

"Today, the sand dunes are used for the homeless, dumping and illegal activity. How do you take back the dunes? You bring in legitimate users."

He said "legitimate users" include visitors who enjoy what he described as "passive walking." Such areas are in high demand.

Sillitoe and Jane Pike, assistant director for parks and recreation, referred to a master plan drawn up in 2003 to redesign the 325-acre park in three phases with funding from the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act.

Post-and-cable fencing will be used to clearly define travel routes with interpretative signs. The natural dunes "shall remain intact and largely undisturbed," the master plan reads.

"Unlimited access throughout the area should be discouraged in an effort to limit damage to existing plant material and avoid excessive disturbance of wildlife," according to the master plan.

The plan recommends revegetation of mesquite bosques and natural Mojave Desert areas that have been degraded by fires.

Preserving mesquite trees is a key concern because the phainopepla, a medium-sized, black-and-gray crested bird eats berries from mistletoe, a parasite plant that grows on mesquite trees. Any loss of mesquite trees could impact populations of the phainopepla.

In the first phase, $17.4 million will be spent on the dunes trails, outlook area, play areas, gathering areas, restrooms and realignment of a second park entrance off Sunset Road.

Sillitoe said design of the first phase will take three months. The project will be sent out for construction bids early next year with completion of the project in early 2009.

In the second phase, $14 million has been set aside for enhancing volleyball courts and the central lake area.

"We will also be enhancing that and tot lots and open turf areas."

Basketball courts and tennis courts as well as a disc golf course will remain in the second phase.

The third phase, which hasn’t been funded or designed, creates festival areas and relocates the park’s baseball and softball fields.

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