Conservation nonprofit Friends of Nevada Wilderness wants you to study the 200-plus springs scattered around Mount Charleston. Although that's how Las Vegans generally refer to the range a half-hour northwest of the city — Mount Charleston — its official name is the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, Jose Witt, Southern Nevada manager for the Friends of Nevada Wilderness, points out. The name is a reminder that water bubbling to the surface at spots throughout the mountains supports the ecosystem flourishing there.
Despite their importance, however, these springs have been neglected when it comes to scientific study. Building on a well-established initiative of the Springs Stewardship Institute, based in Flagstaff, Arizona, and extending similar work already done in Northern Nevada by Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Witt has launched a volunteer citizen-scientist program inviting amateur botanists, geologists and others to conduct field research on the Spring Mountains' springs.
A day-long training prepares volunteers for the job. Witt describes the experience: "You schedule a time to pick up monitoring equipment — we're flexible on times and locations — and we'll find the area or spring you're interested in going to. Then, we give you the GPS data or waypoints to get there, and you'll head out. Most people will take a buddy, go out and monitor the spring and either meet with us at the end of the day or give us a call when they get back and let us know they're safe. While they're at the spring, they'll spend maybe an hour, hour and a half, checking water temperature, pH levels, flow rates, that kind of thing, while writing it all down and taking photos. If they're interested, they can also record plants and birds they see."
Fees collected from the Mount Charleston license plate program will help to pay for training and to reimburse volunteers for mileage. Witt says 15 people have signed on so far, and there's no limit to the number that are welcome.
After citizen scientists hand it over to Friends of Nevada Wilderness, the data will go to the Forest Service for its use. The information will also become part of an international database maintained by the Springs Stewardship Institute. This means that it may be used locally — for instance, to restore springs that have been trampled by invasive species, such as wild horses — or more broadly, such as in climate change models.
"The Forest Service doesn't have much good data about the springs," Witt says. "In 2011, the SSI did some monitoring, but basically, it's a database with potential information and little else. We felt this was a good way to attract a different type of volunteer, one who may not want to go out with a big group and swing tools, but might be interested in a more solitary, skilled activity."
Although Witt says he's expecting a lot of interest during summer months, when Las Vegans enjoy getting up to the cool, mountain air, his hope is for the program to continue throughout the year and into the future. Ongoing data that shows trends at as many sites as possible would be the most useful.
Those interested in participating can call the Southern Nevada office of Friends of Nevada Wilderness at (702) 515-5417.