Last spring, I received a hot tip on the location of a set of dinosaur tracks at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. I’d heard rumors of their existence for years, but their location is a closely guarded secret. It was during one of my frequent excursions to Ice Box Canyon with a local hiking group, part of a regular clean-up effort, that a fellow hiker spilled the beans. As we drove Red Rock’s Scenic Loop, she pointed out the window. “It was right up there,” she said. “Not too far from the trail.”
The information left me in a pickle. I wanted to see the tracks, for sure: grallator tracks, dating to the Jurassic, marching across what was then wet sand, and is now the face of a boulder that would fill a living room. But on the other hand, her vague description left too much ground for me to cover on my own. If I was going to find the tracks, I’d have to enlist help. Spreading the word would put the tracks in danger. Those prints have survived more than 100 million years. A single vandal could destroy them in an afternoon. Maybe I’d be better off just keeping my mouth shut …
It’s a decision that plagues land managers across the country. America’s public lands are protected because they are some of the most beautiful, pristine, and inspiring sites in the world. Some places get preserved for their own sake, like the habitat of the Devil’s Hole pupfish. But most are protected because people have fallen in love with them. They’re protected so future generations can share in the experience. Often times, protection means limiting access, which is a double-edged sword. If people can’t access a site, they can’t destroy it; but they also can’t fall in love. What’s more, if an area gets closed off completely, then nobody gets to enjoy it, which defeats the purpose of conservation. It’s akin to trying to ensure the populace's safety by gradually eroding its Constitution and eliminating civil rights. In the end, you lose the very thing you’re protecting.
That lesson that was brought to life in 2011, when Jim Rhodes submitted plans for a massive development on Blue Diamond Hill, adjacent to Red Rock. The outdoors community came out in vehement opposition to the project, and eventually the plans were shelved. Currently, Mesquite’s city council is deciding whether to set aside land in Gold Butte for protection. One of the areas under consideration, Little Finland, is every bit as dramatic as Red Rock, but it gets a tiny fraction of the visitation. Fewer visitors means fewer advocates, and the outlook seems fuzzy for the future conservation area.
With outcomes like that in mind, I decided to take a small group of friends with me to search for the tracks. We split up and combed the prescribed area, examining every rock bigger than a coffee table. Within two hours, we found them. As we stood in awe of the ancient wonder, we talked about how we, in turn, would handle our newfound secret. We agreed to keep the location hidden, but that it would be OK to take trusted friends to the site.
In the end, I think that’s where the solution lies. Nobody who hiked with me that day would have dreamed of damaging the tracks. Admiring them, taking pictures, enjoying the day, that was enough; along with the reward of knowing that others who followed in our footsteps (literally) would be able to enjoy them as well. I took it upon myself to talk to my friends as we hiked, to stress the importance of conservation, of being stewards to this land we cherish. I tried to think of the things Red Rock’s rangers might say if they weren’t tied to their desks, buried under paperwork.
For the good of our public lands, I’ll ask you to do the same. If you value these places, share them. Take your family and friends out to your favorite secret spot. Let them know why you fell in love with the outdoors, why it’s important to you. They may not care as much as you do, but if they can see what is special about our deserts, then they might understand why they’re worth protecting.