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Field Notes: Mammoth Achievement

Tule Springs
Mikayla Whitmore

For the Tule Springs fossil park, and its striking public art, we have persistent women to thank

It began three years ago as a teenager’s crude sketch of what she called the Monumental Mammoth, which she envisioned as a gatekeeper to the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, the trove of prehistoric remains in North Las Vegas. “I had this idea,” says Tahoe Mack, now 18, “wouldn’t it be cool to create a sculpture that looked to the past, but included the trash that people picked up to make this all happen?”

Now, sitting in an industrial steelyard just west of the Strip on a recent spring morning, the sculpture stands half-built but definitely mammoth — at 24 feet long and 6,000 pounds, it clearly evokes the Ice Age Mammuthus columbi. A group of politicians, activists, and well-wishers is on hand to celebrate the piece, meet the San Francisco-based artist, Dana Albany, and give props to Mack.

Then 15, she was looking for an idea for a Girl Scout Gold Award project when she attended a presentation given by Tule Springs activist and former scout leader Sherri Grotheer. Grotheer spoke emotionally about the local site containing thousands of fossils dating back 300,000 years.

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By an act of Congress, the 22,000-acre grounds would soon become Nevada’s first national monument, carved out of an ancient, windswept expanse that for years had served as an industrial dumping ground for nearby cities. “The fact that all of these Ice Age fossils that are in our own backyard never came up in school just astounded me,” Mack says. Wanting to get involved, she sketched out a crude rendering of a mammoth, its skin composed of repurposed metal discarded at from the site.

As much as it’s about fossils and statuary, this is really a story about passion, persistence, and female mentorship.

“This is a great example of older women inspiring a girl who is influencing the next generation of girls,” Grotheer, a board member of the grassroots group Protectors of Tule Springs, tells the gathering, her voice breaking with emotion.

The story starts with five women, all residents of Sun City Aliante, a retirement community in North Las Vegas, who in 2006 attended a meeting sponsored by the BLM. Officials were seeking public input on a plan to sell off for development a site that contained hundreds of thousands of precious Ice Age fossils.

“A voice inside me said ‘This is just ridiculous,’” says Jill DeStefano, a special education teacher. “I mean, you can’t build on everything.”

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The women, ranging in age from early 50s to late 70s, launched a campaign to convince the public and decision-makers that the land should be preserved as a park — a priceless aid to teach visitors and schoolchildren about the area’s distant past. They circulated fliers and walked neighborhoods, attended night planning meetings, lobbied politicians with calls and letters and office visits. They consulted experts, stood out in the summer sun gathering 10,000 petition signatures to convince then-U.S. Sen. Harry Reid that the movement had real public support.

Time and again, the women faced off against developers and other monied interests who dismissed their cause and wrote off their zeal to preserve the area. The women were particularly irked that the land had already been earmarked for private interests, with the proposed streets already mapped out and named.

“One lobbyist told me to my face to just go home and play some bridge, because they were going to build all over that land,” DeStefano says. “I told him that I didn’t play bridge, and that we weren’t about to let that happen.”

Group member Sandy Croteau recalls another lobbyist icily imploring: “Can’t you ladies find another corner of the Mojave Desert to save?’

The women organized teams to remove trash from the site, hauling off more than 400 tons of car engines, doors, a jacuzzi, washers, and miscellaneous metal, much of it dumped there during the area’s early 2000’s building boom. There were so many discarded mattresses the women began using the term “desert bordello.”

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Grotheer got involved in the movement in 2009. On one hand, she used her experience working for a local law firm to help the group establish nonprofit status and liaison with congressional staff. But she also got involved as a site steward, doing occasional patrols to guard against vandalism and venturing out after rainstorms to scout out new emerging fossils.

She also assisted on a few digs. “Most everything that I’ve done in life has been on some kind of deadline — people saying ‘Hurry! Hurry!’” she says. “Then, there I was lying on my side with a brush in the desert, helping to excavate a prehistoric rib bone, having a scientist tell me to go slower, that slower was better. There was just the wonder of watching this mammoth bone emerge. I was hooked. At that point, I would have done anything to preserve those fossils.”

The national monument was established in 2014, nearly a decade after the five women began their crusade. President Obama’s signing of the bill to create the new monument amazed even the original five activists. Says DeStefano, “Five old ladies got a bill through the United States Congress and Senate, and signed by President Obama as a law.”

In 2015, Grotheer gave the presentation that inspired 15-year-old Tahoe Mack. Eventually, Mack reached out to artists to help bring her vision to reality. One was Dana Albany, a San Francisco sculptor and Burning Man contributor who has become famous for creating public art from recycled or discarded materials.

On the morning of the sculpture’s unveiling, Albany is buffing the mammoth’s metal toenails as dignitaries cluster around. She has spent months tutoring Mack and other activists on how to weld the recycled metal. (Grotheer also contributed a spoon and salt shaker from her mother’s collection of sterling silver. “I just wanted a piece of my mother in that mammoth.”)

“It’s just so beautiful to be approached by a young girl who wanted to build a monumental mammoth out of recycled materials but who didn’t know how to weld,” Albany says. “How could you say no?”

Neither the sculpture nor the park are finished, and activists continue to fundraise, but this spring ceremony is a step toward a young girl’s dream of seeing her Monumental Mammoth perched outside the gate of the new natural history attraction.

Before that, the sculpture will visit this summer’s Burning Man Festival. Mack and some of the older activists have been invited to attend. Asked if she was ready for such hedonism, Grotheer quips: “Oh, honey, I grew up in the ’70s. I’ve already seen it all.”