Las Vegas' huge, lavish, new ... wetlands?

Desert city turns a former sewage gully into a visitor-friendly park – complete with foxes, geckos, and tourists.

Build it and they will come. That's the mantra when mammoth hotels and glitzy casinos are built here.

But for desert parkland too? Apparently so, if Walt Wegesser is any indication.

On a recent day, the Las Vegas resident was jogging on a revamped wetlands trail in the Las Vegas Wash for the first time. "I like to run somewhere besides subdivisions and on concrete," he said, a green ribbon of cattails beside him. "I think this might be it."

Once a dumping ground for urban debris, the Wash today is a 2,900-acre preserve. The park isn't complete, but so far Clark County officials have developed 150 acres: In addition to the 20-mile wetlands trail, there are ponds and a habitat for migratory birds.

In a city known for indoor slot machines, it's a big step in improving the outdoors – and it could be the first of several strides in that direction. The Wash is one of the largest swaths of locally preserved land in the nation, putting southern Nevada on the map for protecting natural and cultural resources.

"It's a unique environment," says Jeff Harris, parks planning manager for Clark County. "It's been compared to Central Park because of its importance."

The visitor-friendly Wash is a far cry from its earlier state – an eroded, 10-mile gully draining about 150 million gallons of treated sewage, contaminated ground water, storm-water runoff, and untreated industrial and residential waste each day. For more than 25 years, this mixture flowed into Lake Mead, which is just six miles upstream from the Southern Nevada Water Authority's drinking-water intake valves.

The idea of turning the area into a wetlands park first surfaced in 1973, in an effort to stop erosion of the Wash (due to urban development). It took 18 more years for a bond initiative to pass and open the way for restoration. But even after the money was secured, lengthy studies and the need to purchase nearby private land delayed restoration for another decade.

Now, however, restoration workers are reintroducing native plants and trees, such as cottonwood, willow, and mesquite. They've also installed footbridges and benches from which to observe wildlife – a population that, according to the Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee, already includes foxes, tortoises, geckos, frogs, and quail. At a ceremony earlier this year, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) of Nevada described the project as "incredible. Here we are dedicating a wetlands park in the middle of the desert."

Attendance has been steadily on the rise since the first phase of the park opened in April, says Mr. Harris, the parks planning manager. He notes that a surprising percentage of visitors hail from outside the Las Vegas area. "It was designed to protect and enhance the environment, but in the process it's attracted tourists," he says.

Shoring up banks along the Wash and installing meandering paths and native plants is an ongoing process, Harris says. About $14 million in bond funds have been spent so far. "When we're done," he says, "it will have 30 to 50 miles for hiking, equestrian, and mountain bike trails."

The Wash isn't the only Las Vegas land to get restoration attention. Workers are also renovating 30 acres of a planned 180-acre, $171 million Las Vegas Springs Preserve, once a lush meadow and home to Paiutes and 19th-century Mormon settlers. And a federal pledge of $2 million to restore the depleted artesian spring, west of downtown, was announced this summer.

Representatives of the Las Vegas Sierra Club say the springs, Wash, and wetlands are great first steps in preserving nature. "But there needs to be more protection of lands," says Carrie Sandstedt, a conservation organizer for the Sierra Club and member of the Nevada Wilderness Coalition. "We're currently working on legislation that would protect 440,000 acres of federal lands in Clark County."

The lands, Ms. Sandstedt says, are sprinkled all over the valley – in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Spring Mountains, and Muddy Mountains. She says any such preservation designation "allows us to recreate, but gives protection to keep it in its wild state.

"All Americans should be concerned about wilderness land in Las Vegas, no matter where they live," she adds. "It belongs to everyone."

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