Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Southern Nevada's New Natural History Preserve



The earliest visitors to the Las Vegas Valley came because of the presence of water. In fact, the name, Las Vegas, is Spanish for “the meadows,” and reflects the fact that the area was home to natural springs and lush grassy fields.

While the original springs that once bubbled to the surface were tamed long ago, the spot from which the valley’s water originated still exists. For years, the site been hidden behind walls and fences on land owned by the Las Vegas Valley Water District. But now it’s being transformed into a diverse biological refuge and museum complex that is dedicated to telling the region’s natural history.

Known as the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, this 180-acre compound, scheduled to open in the spring of 2007, will include restored natural habitat and exhibition buildings. The site, known as the North Well Field or “Big Springs,” is located about three miles west of downtown Las Vegas.

The project is a joint effort by the Las Vegas Valley Water District, the non-profit Las Vegas Springs Preserve Foundation and the Nevada State Museum. The latter will be relocating its Southern Nevada branch from Lorenzi Park to new quarters attached to the Preserve sometime in 2008.

As for what’s underway, work has been completed on several of the structures that will serve as the Visitor Center and the Desert Living Center. When open, the former will have interactive exhibits that will interpret the role that the springs played in the development of Las Vegas. Additionally, it will house a high-definition IMAX-style theater and a photo gallery. Nearby is an open-air amphitheater, café and retail area.

The exhibits will include a plate tectonic display that asks visitors to choose which plates move and the results of that movement, a night-goggle experiment to show how nocturnal creatures can see, and a large re-creation of a desert flash flood, which will immerse visitors into the center of a realistic flood that will include more than 5,000 gallons of water racing toward them.

The Desert Living Center is being designed to showcase urban sustainability in the West. It will house agencies that promote homeowners, businesses and educators to embrace good environmental practices.

In keeping with the environmental sustainability nature of the preserve, all structures incorporate eco-friendly materials and designs. Building beams are made of recompressed, recycled wood, rafters are recycled railroad ties and commercial grade straw bales are used in walls for insulation. Building that resemble rock are actually rammed earth and solar panels will generate heat and power.

Workers have also been planting an 8-acre Botanical Gardens to showcase native, drought-tolerant species of plants that can be used in landscaping and promote responsible water use in the dry Southern Nevada climate.

A large part of the preserve will be left mostly undeveloped but with some 6,500 linear feet of walking trails and 14 interpretive displays that will describe the early settlement and development of Las Vegas. The trails will wind around a handful of historic structures and archaeological sites that remain on the site.

Chief among these historic reminders of the area’s earlier uses are several wooden pumping stations that resemble head frames found in old mining towns, an old springhouse built over a spring, ranch house foundations and archaeological digs.

Alongside the trail walk is a Cienega or desert wetland, which will be home to hundreds of native plants and animals. The site will include a reconstructed cauldron pool that will duplicate the natural springs that once gurgled from beneath the surface.

Development in Las Vegas during the past century has lowered the original water table so much so that the springs no longer bubble from the ground. However, at one time the flow from the springs was quite remarkable.

A Mormon missionary, part of a group that established the first non-Indian settlement in the valley in 1855, reported that the artisan wells had so much force that a person was unable to sink in them “on account of the strong upward rush of the water.”

About a year or two after the facility opens, the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society hopes to complete its new building, which will house its collection of historic artifacts and exhibitions describing Southern Nevada history.

For more information about the new Las Vegas Springs Preserve, go to www.springspreserve.org.

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