Sunday, May 23, 2010

Scientists use conservation lands as 'outdoor lab'

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - In the Robledo Mountains of southern New Mexico, an international team of scientists spent the past week toiling under the desert sun, searching for clues to help them better understand what life was like along a prehistoric shoreline.

Layer after layer, the mudstone at Prehistoric Trackways National Monument has offered up the tracks of reptiles and jumping insects and even the imprints of jellyfish. There are fossil logs and plants that predate the dinosaur age by tens of millions of years.

"We see this as a window to a lost world," said Jerry MacDonald, who was a student at New Mexico State University when he stumbled upon the trackways in 1987.

The monument contains some of the most scientifically significant early Permian trackways in the world. It's one of dozens of units within the National Landscape Conservation System that scientists are using as a vast outdoor laboratory.

The National Landscape Conservation System, or NLCS, is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Officials have planned a weeklong symposium in Albuquerque to highlight discoveries made within the system - from the prehistoric tracks in southern New Mexico to the fossils of new dinosaur species at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

"We're trying to get the word out and hopefully get people to start thinking about these lands in a different way," said Marietta Eaton, science coordinator for NLCS in Washington, D.C. "They're not just out there so you can go out and recreate. They have some amazing, amazing resources and discoveries left to be made."

Covering more than 27 million acres, the system includes 886 federally recognized areas in 12 Western states - national monuments, national conservation areas, wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, scenic and historic trails and conservation lands.

It's all managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Eaton said the conservation system guarantees that special places will be protected for generations and scientists like MacDonald won't have to worry about development or other variables interfering with long-term research projects.

Kevin Mack of The Wilderness Society said the system's simple mission statement focuses on conservation, protection and restoration of significant landscapes. The key, he said, is that it recognizes lands that have scientific value.

"What we know about the world is much different now than it was 100 years ago. These places give us a chance to continue to do that research and take a glimpse back and see the world maybe as it was and maybe learn some new things," he said.

Mack pointed to the Snowy River cave passage in southern New Mexico, where researchers have found what is believed to be the world's largest continuous mineral cave decoration - a solid river of tiny white calcite crystals that stretches more than 4.7 miles.

On the cave walls is a black manganese oxide crust that's inhabited by microorganisms.

Scientists are looking to the cave to learn more about the region's climatic history, the mysterious microbes and the relationship between ground and surface water sources.

"You've got a cave there that is unlike anything else ever seen in the world, and it's revealing dates for events that have happened climatically for tens of thousands of years. That's very profound to have that kind of information," Eaton said.

Back at the trackways monument, MacDonald recalled the first time he cracked open a slab and found a handful of consecutive tracks in pristine condition. He knew on a summer day more than 20 years ago that he was on to something.

His work paid off last year, when the area was designated as a national monument and added to the conservation system.

MacDonald was joined over the past week by scientists from England, Germany, the Smithsonian Institute and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History. Their interests ranged from animal tracks to fossil plants.

"You get all of these guys coming to this new national monument and they're all working together, studying different types of fossils, and it's just really exciting," MacDonald said. "We've got all of it in one place."

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