Ruhenstroth - At least 10 major fossil zones have been identified in this southeast Carson Valley area, a rare 3 million-year-old site where the Bureau of Land Management last week initiated an emergency closure to protect it.
The depth of this fossil record is not known and the potential to identify additional local sites is high, but much could be lost under the tires of recreational vehicles, Bureau officials said Thursday.
"Other sites exist on private land, but those opportunities will probably be lost to development," said Tom Crawford, economist and project manager for the BLM. "We can manage at least this one small area directly."
This 2,340-acre area is known as Ruhenstroth. Growth is forcing communities into the Pine Nut Range and homes can be seen from the chalky hillsides, where the ancient bones lay exposed on public lands.
Bureau archaeologist Susan McCabe on Thursday morning picked up part of an ancient rib bone just yards away from the numerous trails cut by recreational vehicles. She said recreational traffic has increased exponentially in the past two years and land management officials are trying to protect only a fraction of the deposit, which extends far beyond Ruhenstroth borders.
"The potential for finding an intact mastodon is very high here," she said. "People have the right to access public lands, but they have to be educated."
She said 3 million years is not long with respect to archaeology, but sites from this era are rare in the United States. Horses, zebras, otters, rabbits, camels, ground squirrels and pocket gophers have all been pulled from the site, but what could be even more important is the material left in place.
For example, the pollen particles surrounding bones can provide critical clues to the plants that grew when the animals lived, and thus the entire ecosystem. Once those bones are disturbed, that record is lost.
"Our technology is getting better all the time," she said. "Once you bring a bone to me and tell me where you found it, 80 percent of the data is lost."
Just down the hill from the site where a mastodon skeleton was excavated in 2000, recreational vehicles climb and dip over the hills often enough to decimate native plants like sage, rabbit brush and bunch grasses. Many off-roaders prefer to travel cross country rather than staying on the trails and in this area, only the pinon and cedar are left - they are too large to be run over.
Without native vegetation to hold the soil, the hills will be subject to erosion, ultimately leading to the loss of the 3-million-year-old record, McCabe said.
Trip Aiken has been riding recreational vehicles in the area for more than 25 years. He viewed the landscape without emotion.
"We're seeing an increase in recreational vehicles, but we're also seeing more people in area," he said. "It's good and it's bad. The trail may be the best way to ride, but some like to ride cross-country."
Aiken said he moved to the area to have ready access, so he and his family could ride here. He stays on designated trails when riding and does a lot of volunteer work, cleaning up the desert. He took exception to the shot gun shells, broken glass and beer cans scattered across a portion of the site.
"An awful lot of people enjoy their OHV's," he said. "But a lot of this trash did not come from off-roaders. They're getting a bad rap, because they're the most visible and numerous."
He feels BLM is restricting access on more land than is appropriate and what he would like to see is off-roading limited to the existing roads.
The success of this new regulation will come through signage and enforcement, but the first line of defense for the agency will be education, said BLM Ranger Thomas Sharkey.
Contact Susie Vasquez at email@example.com or 881-1212.