LAS VEGAS - For more than 1,000 years, tribes from at least three American Indian cultures came to a place overlooking what is now the Las Vegas Valley to feast on agave, hunt bighorn sheep and etch symbols of their lifestyles in the sandstone outcroppings known as Little Red Rocks.
It was a crossroads for bands of Southern Paiute, tribes from the lower Colorado River and the Anasazi from the Virgin River who have long since vanished but left reminders of their distinctive fired pottery and paintings on rock walls.
This stretch of high desert that reaches from about 3,000 feet to a mile in elevation had what the Indians needed to survive in the harsh climate.
Shallow depressions in these fossilized sand dunes made for natural water tanks, or "tenajas," to hold rainwater.
Pine trees and steep walls of orange and beige sandstone that jut from the landscape provided shade, shelter and pine nuts.
It was close to where life began at the foot of the Spring Mountains as well as where life was celebrated and where it ended for some of these ancient people.
Now it is a point of controversy with a developer who wants to build thousands of homes here. Some tribes including Paiute and Hopi don't want the construction to unearth the remains of their ancient people.
It is private property with a public interest and a government mandate.
Because some parts of the development will fill washes, a Clean Water Act permit is required by the Army Corps of Engineers. The permit also must comply with the National Historic Preservation Act. That means the owner, The Howard Hughes Corp., must identify cultural resources in the area for the corps, evaluate them and assess what effect the project will have.
Hughes officials have vowed to preserve the cultural resources and have had archaeologists document the sites. They developed a preservation plan and have discussed it at a recent public meeting.
The plan, said Don Hendricks, an amateur archaeologist who spurred Hughes to record the sites, "is certainly a good first step, but a lot of us certainly don't think it goes far enough."
What remains on this 75-acre patch of The Howard Hughes Corp. property are the panels of petroglyphs, the stippled peckings of rock art and some painted work, or pictographs of the Anasazi, Patayan and Numic traditions that grace the outcroppings at five different sites. Among the images depicted are a shaman, or chief, with a horned headdress; stick figures of people holding hands; a bear paw; a shield; the sun; and a tall, desert plant, agave.
There also are etchings of what archaeologists believe are white settlers who passed through the area. They show women wearing dresses and men with cowboy hats, who perhaps were Santa Fe traders from the New Mexico Territory vintage 1830s and early 1840s, and Mormon pioneers who passed through later.
It's only been in recent years that vandals, too, have left their marks. They came with paint, tools and guns to mar the surroundings of the ancient artwork, degrading it with graffiti, ethnic slurs and sexually explicit scenes while leaving their trash behind.
Hughes' vice president for community relations, Tom Warden, notes that the corporation has tried to prevent access to the sites by off-road vehicles, but fences have been yanked down soon after they've been erected. Boulders placed to block off-road trails have been pushed aside.
"Somebody brought out heavy equipment to do this," he said. "Frankly, it's a daunting problem."
The corporation determined the best way to protect the sites is to surround them with low-density housing, open space or a golf course.
Scattered between the five sites are about two dozen doughnut-shape pits where agave was roasted over chunks of limestone. It also is believed to be near the places, according to Paiutes, where some of their ancestors were buried.
Kenny Anderson, cultural representative for the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, said though the plan has measures to preserve the rock faces and to prevent destruction of those sites, there is nothing in place to protect the landscape that represents potential burial sites.
"Basically we'd like to have them be aware of what's in their back yards," Anderson said.
"If they start digging around in there, they might come across remains," he said.
But Warden said "we're not going to disturb or build houses on any of the cultural sites identified in the survey."
The Army Corps of Engineers failed to consult the local Paiutes _ a letter was sent to a former tribal official. Only the Hopi tribe, some 500 miles away, responded to consultation requests.
"In the beginning, I think they should have notified the Las Vegas Paiutes," Anderson said.
Hendricks would prefer Hughes officials consider a land swap or sell the land to public ownership to make it part of nearby Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, where other cultural sites exist.
"At some point that whole area is going to be rooftops with a few pieces of red rocks sticking out," he said.
The preservation plan recommends implementing the Hopi suggestions. The tribe suggested that future homeowners "be informed of the presence of the archaeological sites and penalties for illegally disturbing archaeological sites."
The Hopi suggested making awareness of the sites and preserving them a provision of the sale agreement.