THE SPECTRUM-Stephen Rowland, In My Opinion
In his recent trip to Nevada, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent a few hours in one of our newest national monuments — Gold Butte, where he viewed Native American rock art threatened by vandals, hiking trails that offer countless opportunities for exploration and fragile desert plants and wildlife native to only this region.
As part of a review of 27 national monuments being targeted by President Trump, Secretary Zinke vowed to learn all he could about our national monuments and the reasons these places were protected under the Antiquities Act. What he likely did not see in his brief trip, nor allow time to hear about from researchers like me, is the deep history embedded in the layers of rock within Gold Butte National Monument.
When President Obama designated Gold Butte as a national monument, he recognized that America’s history and the values worth protecting are not always visible to the naked eye. They sometimes lie undiscovered in the very land beneath our feet. There are places in America that should be set aside for protection for their paleontological and geological wonders, and Gold Butte is one of those places.
Over 500 million years of geologic history are exposed in the rocks of Gold Butte, including a thick interval of strata that is missing in nearby Grand Canyon. In the past few years, my colleagues and I have discovered and documented in Gold Butte many fossil footprints of dinosaurs and protomammals that lived in the Jurassic Period. These fossils preserve a desert ecosystem that existed in our region 180 million years ago.
We’re now studying another, even older, Gold Butte fossil trackway ― from the dawn of the Permian Period ― that records the footprints of a primitive reptile that lived about 50 million years before the earliest dinosaurs. At about 290 million years old, it is the oldest known vertebrate trackway in Nevada or Utah.
Prior to five years ago, none of these fossil trackways were known. Gold Butte is that kind of place ― a trove of geological and paleontological treasures waiting to be discovered.
In addition to its amazing geologic resources, and the traces of extinct species from the distant past, Gold Butte is home to more than 70 threatened or sensitive extant species. How this modern ecosystem is managed is critical to the future health of the desert.
Surely, Zinke, who studied geology at the University of Oregon, recognizes that America’s greatness is based on more than superficial features. The deep history recorded in rocks and fossils enriches the value of our landscapes. We must continue to protect and learn from places like Gold Butte.
In my nearly 40 years as a professor at UNLV, doing field work across the globe and across North America, I have never seen a place more important than Gold Butte to our ecological history and our evolving sense of stewardship. Decades and centuries from now, when much more is known about these lands and those who came before us, our descendants will be incredulous that there was even a question about whether Gold Butte was deserving of national monument status.
President Trump needs to hear this from Zinke in his report later this month. Gold Butte is highly deserving of protection as a national monument under the Antiquities Act.
Stephen M. Rowland is a professor of geology at UNLV.