In the age of connectivity and information-sharing, it can be frustrating when it seems that we are unable to respond swiftly to natural disasters like floods, especially when they affect beloved areas so close to the Las Vegas valley like the Mount Charleston area. However, when we take a step back and consider the grandeur of nature and the scale of time it has taken to shape the Spring Mountains, we can begin to understand the complexity of the situation. While the most-utilized canyons have trails and areas that are closed until further notice, Forest Service has opened many of the surrounding areas. Visitors should still use extreme caution as the open areas may still have significant washouts and hazardous tree conditions. As the closure evolve, potential visitors should check our Weekly Update and follow us on social media (links at top of page).
The Spring Mountains have undergone countless transformations over eons. The limestone cliffs, which slowly erode into the piles of rubble that now line the canyon floors, once constituted the floor of an ancient inland sea. The water flowing through the springs and wells has been meticulously filtered through rock over lifetimes. Floods, as destructive as they may seem, are part of the natural cycle of erosion. Yet, the engineering prowess of humans is continually evolving to withstand the relentless forces of nature. This incudes how our roads, trails, and developed areas are constructed and repaired.
There are striking parallels between this summer’s historic flooding event and the 2013 Carpenter 1 fire and major flooding that followed. Major infrastructure repairs were planned out and constructed to avert future flooding disasters in areas that the 2013 floods highlighted. It was only in 2018 that we were able to begin replanting in some of the Carpenter 1 burn areas, utilizing seeds from the surrounding areas that were gathered in months and years after the fire and sent to a Forest Service nursery for growth. The most damaged trails remained closed for years as they were cleared and shored up, with the las trail – Griffith Peak- finally reopening in late 2020. Southern Nevada Conservancy continues to host planting events in the Carpenter 1 burn and flood affected areas. This sort of work will begin again as experts plan out the full scope of flood recovery efforts from Tropical Storm Hilary’s devastation.
Assessments in the wake of such disasters are not merely about identifying which roads are damaged and fixing them. They delve into deeper questions: What infrastructure needs repair beneath the surface? What factors might contribute to a repeat of such catastrophic flooding and damage to developed areas? How could we avoid the same damages happening again?
The silver lining lies in the fact that multiple jurisdictions and agencies are collaborating on assessments and repairs concurrently. Local, state, and federal officials are diligently seeking funds and expedited work orders to race the clock agaisnt impending winter weather. The most protracted phase of recovery will likely be the reopening of highly trafficked developed forest areas. The US Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team, composed of scientists and engineers from across the nation, is meticulously evaluating how to make lasting repairs and rejuvenate the forest’s health, soils, and groundwater. Other businesses and agencies are working through their parts as well, read more in this Las Vegas Weekly month-later followup article and this November followup from KTNV with video.
Once roads are restored, the next slew of questions arises: Are utility and water lines washed out? How did the pit toilets withstand the water and debris onslaught? Are trail and path structures hazardous for the average user? Is the trailhead or campground cleared for visitors, or is it completely washed away? Are picnic tables still intact in the picnic areas? Remarkably, many of the concrete structures installed around 2013, such as benches and picnic tables, have survived the latest deluge. While some may be displaced, buried, or upturned, they remain salvageable and ready for use. Officials have to comb each area closely to determine the damage levels then create a priority list of repairs and improvements.
Some of the most popular trails have borne the brunt of the damage, experiencing washouts, debris blockages, and fallen or hazardous trees. Some trailheads are complete losses. Both Southern Nevada Conservancy, through our Go Mt Charleston team, and Forest Service have dedicated staff diligently working through these documenting these issues. However, progress depends not only on funding and staff capacity, but also on the unpredictable weather and the volume of damage and debris present in each developed area.
The Forest Service is using a safety-first approach to reopening, relying on the main highway repairs, water and sanitation repairs, and accessibility as a guide. As safety restrictions are gradually lifted, volunteers may play a crucial role in refurbishing trails and well-frequented public areas in the short term. Additionally, there will be ongoing tasks, including seed collection, removal of invasive species that quickly take root in disturbed areas, and the eventual replanting of native vegetation to restore soil health and reduce the risk of future erosion. Southern Nevada Conservancy is seeking donations to fund a 4×4 pickup truck to continue our work, and potential volunteers are encouraged to sign up for the Go Mt Charleston volunteer interest list.
In the face of nature’s formidable forces, the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area exemplifies the delicate balance between human intervention and the resilience of the natural world. While immediate frustrations may be felt by hikers, campers, and outdoor enthusiasts, it’s important to remember that the restoration efforts are not just about rebuilding infrastructure but also about preserving the remarkable ecosystems that have evolved over millennia.