September 2, 2008

Valley’s Natural Treasures Justify Creation of New State Office

To the editor:

In a Wednesday editorial, you responded to my proposal for the creation of a State Paleontologist by asking: "How did this great state survive so long without one?"

My answer: Very poorly.

Nevada has many priceless paleontological sites, but one of our greatest treasures is the 13,000-acre Upper Las Vegas Wash, one of the most valuable paleontological resources in our nation - perhaps the world.

In early 1960, the National Academy of Sciences funded an excavation of only 1,000 acres of the 13,000-acre wash. Scientists from around the world were invited to participate. An enormous quantity of valuable fossils were recovered, not only from the surface but as far as 20 feet below the surface. The variety and quantities of fossil discoveries were mind-boggling. The dig site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Where are all those wonderful, valuable unearthed fossils being studied and skeletal models replicated? In the paleontological laboratories at UNLV? Nope. We did not have a State Paleontologist to take charge of the loot, and we did not even have sufficient archival space to store the fossils in Southern Nevada, so the fossils were scattered, some to California, the rest - who knows? This is not a source of pride for our state.

Another study of the wash commissioned a San Bernardino, Calif., group of paleontologists to perform a surface survey of the entire 13,000 acres. This resulted in the identification of 500 surface sites containing ice-age mammals. Is UNLV or UNR studying the collection of fossils from this survey? Nope. The fossils were sent to San Bernardino. Here again, a State Paleontologist may have made the difference between the hiring Californians over Nevada professionals for this survey and keeping the treasures in our state. No pride for the state of Nevada. It's a slap in the face to Nevada's scientists and academics.

From the Los Angeles Times we learn: "Scientists are convinced that the Upper Las Vegas Wash in Nevada is packed with bones that could aid scientists' understanding of climate change and how behemoth animals subsisted during the ice age. 'It almost gives me goose bumps,' one California scientist stated." Are all the scientists studying our fossils going to be Californians? Probably, because that's where our excavated fossils are stored.

What's wrong with having an official State Paleontologist who could protect the Upper Las Vegas Wash and numerous other precious scientific, non-renewable resources, who could possibly reclaim our fossils from California and direct important scientific studies to our universities and paleontological professionals?

As our great state grows, we need to compete hard to assure our position among many other great states. To do so, we may even have to add a few positions to the Nevada state government, which, incidentally, has the smallest number of government personnel, per capita, among the 50 states.

Harry Mortenson

Las Vegas

The writer, a Democrat, represents Assembly District 42.

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