The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is closing 2,340 acres of public land in the Pine Nut Range to motorized off-road vehicles in an effort to protect ancient vertebrate fossils.
"Soil erosion from expanding off-highway vehicle use, originating mostly from residents in new housing developments adjacent to the Pine Nut Mountains, is causing these fossils to be uncovered, and in many cases destroyed or illegally collected," Chuck Pope, the BLM's assistant director for non-renewable resources, said Tuesday.
"The main emphasis here is just to protect and monitor and educate folks about protecting these paleontological resources," he said.
Four years ago, a Douglas County teenager riding his motorcycle in the area found the partial remains of a 3-million-year-old mastodon and reported it to authorities.
Though the exact location of the site was not publicized, Pope said the area is popular with dirt bikers, all-terrain vehicle riders and other off-road vehicle users.
Archaeologists and paleontologists removed portions of the bones, but Pope said the site is rich with other fossils as well.
"It's not just the mastodon," he said. "There's definitely still other fossils in the area."
The BLM said rangers will be posting closure signs and local law enforcement will assist in enforcing the off-road ban.
"People will still be able to use some existing roads," Pope said, adding that major dirt roads through the area will remain open.
"A lot of the other roads are trails and stuff, that's where the damage is occurring."
Kevin Walsh, a Carson City lawyer and founder of the Pine Nut Mountains Trails Association, said members of the group would respect legitimate closures to protect resources and hoped the parameters wouldn't be "overly inclusive."
"That area has been a place of contention just as a result of the urban interface in the area," Walsh told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
"There's no doubt people often remove historic or prehistoric items on public lands when they find them. It's a question of ethics whether you're an off-roader or somebody out there shooting.
"Our group strongly opposes anybody destroying or taking archaeological or historic finds," he said.
The BLM is in the process of updating its Pine Nut resource management plan, a draft of which is expected to be released for public comment later this year, said Tom Crawford, the BLM project manager for the plan amendment.
Pope said the emergency closure will remain in effect until specifics for managing travel in the area can be incorporated into the overall resource management plan.