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Tour offers Air Force close-up look at fossil-rich flyover country

Air Force Col. Barry Cornish has flown over Tule Springs in the cockpit of an F-15 more times than he can remember, but even the bones of a mammoth are pretty tough to spot at 400 mph.

The commander of Nellis Air Force Base got a more leisurely look at the proposed national monument Monday during a ground-level tour through the fossil-laden hills at the northern edge of the valley.

Advocates for protecting a broad section of the Upper Las Vegas Wash took Cornish and other Nellis officers on a short hike to some significant points of interest, including the remnants of a major dig researchers conducted there 50 years ago.

The tour came as identical bills await action in Congress to designate a saw-toothed swath of federal land covering almost 23,000 acres as Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee is slated to review the legislation Thursday and send it on for a vote of the full Senate.

The measure is backed by Nevada’s full congressional delegation, as well as the state, the county and the cities of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas.

The Air Force supports it too, in large part because it would preserve one of two flyways between Nellis and the nearly 3 million acre Nevada Test and Training Range.

“This is probably one of the busiest ranges in the states, and we’re not the only ones who use it,” Cornish said, noting that dozens of countries have sent pilots and aircraft to train in the skies over Central Nevada. “It is kind of the preferred venue around the world.”

UNLV geologists Josh Bonde and Steve Rowland led Monday’s tour, pointing out fossils and passing around fragments of bone and mammoth tusk ivory.

In one 20-foot area, Bonde showed the group what he called “an active quarry” of camel bones and a low slope dusted with other fossil fragments. There are ice age remnants everywhere you look, he said.

“It’s ridiculous. This is job security.”

The area is prized because it contains a wealth of fossils from a vast cross-section of time, allowing researchers to study climate change and its impact on animals through the last 200,000 years or so.

Much of the tour focused on the so-called Big Dig of the early 1960s, which was a scientific achievement in its own right, marking the first large-scale use of radiocarbon dating to gauge the age of rock and fossilized material.

In some places, holes were dug by hand. In others, bulldozers carved trenches as much as 30 feet deep and hundreds of feet long through the mounds of ice age sediment.

“What these guys did in the ’60s, you’d never get away with that again,” Bonde said.

Later, he showed the group a nondescript hillside where, in the summer of 2012, he found a single bone from an extinct predator known as a dire wolf, the first such discovery in Nevada.

He also pointed out a small hill someone used as a dirt bike ramp, despite a ban on motorized vehicles in the area without a permit. In other places, tire tracks cross directly over fossilized mammoth bones — visual proof of the need for greater protections, he said.

“I don’t think they’re being malicious. If I was a kid with a motorcycle, this would seem like a good place to ride,” he said. “But please don’t jump your motorcycles off our fossils.”

Jill DeStefano helped organize Monday’s tour. She is the president — and one of the founding members — of the Protectors of Tule Springs, a small volunteer group formed to keep the fossil beds from being trashed or covered in homes.

She’s eager to see the monument designated, developed and opened to the public.

“I am looking forward to sharing it with more people,” she said. “Right now it’s so restricted.”

After the tour, Cornish said he was impressed by what he saw, and he reiterated the Air Force’s support for the monument.

Military officials have even come to accept the designation of a second power transmission corridor through the area, though it will give low-flying military helicopters something new to worry about during training flights.

Cornish and company are more concerned about parts of the Tule Springs bill that would transfer separate pieces of federal land, some of them right around the base, to local entities for economic development.

Cornish said he’s all for that, as long as the land is used in a way that’s compatible with the base and its mission to test aircraft, train pilots and protect the country.

“We want to protect our past,” he said, standing among the fossil covered hills, “but we also want to protect our future.”

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Find him on Twitter at @RefriedBrean.

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