LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Some Las Cruces-area residents are pushing for protection for thousands of ancient fossil footprints discovered 15 years ago by an amateur geologist.
"If the site isn't protected, our fear is it will be lost due to mining, looting and weather," said Keith Whelpley of Las Cruces, chairman of the Paleozoic Trackways Foundation, which was formed recently to push to protect the 290 million-year-old site in the Robledo Mountains.
The site changed what scientists know about the area, said Spencer Lucas, curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque.
"The Robledo Mountains are the scientific Rosetta Stone of our understanding of Paleozoic footprints," said Lucas, who was first shown the tracks in the early 1990s.
Before their discovery, researchers overestimated the number of animals at the time because they had only isolated tracks. The same animal made different tracks running and walking, but scientists assumed the prints were from different animals, Lucas said.
The site also includes insect tracks, "animals that we don't even know existed without the tracks," he said.
The site includes tracks of pre-dinosaur creatures, footprints from 11-foot-long fin-backed reptiles, small to medium size amphibians, indentations from raindrops and water ripple marks.
Whelpley said the foundation has just begun looking at ways to protect the area, but that one possibility is to create a national monument or national park.
Congress or the president designates national monuments.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management already oversees about 700 acres, said Tim Sanders, assistant district manager for the bureau's Las Cruces office. The BLM is considering increasing the acreage to 2,000 acres under an update of its regional land use plan, he said. The site is designated a research area.
The status protects the fossils, most of which remain buried, Sanders said.
Whelpley said the foundation wants a more permanent status and to make the tracks accessible.
"We want to be able to open it up so visitors can see the site, look at excavation being done and see the trackways," he said. "You go out there right now and the trackways are not very visible."
The tracks gained attention in the last decade when amateur geologist Jerry MacDonald of Las Cruces began excavating the site.