updated 9/14/2007 8:06:39 AM ET 2007-09-14T12:06:39

A federal agency's decision not to renew a mining permit for a rock quarry near Las Cruces will better protect a repository of pre-dinosaur era fossil tracks.

"Our sort of new focus is on trackways protection and trying to reclaim this mine site so the trackways are preserved," said Tim Sanders, assistant manager for the Bureau of Land Management's Las Cruces district.

The BLM decided not to renew the six-month permit held by Raul Villa because of increasing interest in protecting the 280 million-year-old trackways.

Permian-period trackways of insects, amphibians and reptiles are found in sedimentary rocks throughout the Robledo Mountains.

Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici have co-sponsored legislation to designate 5,367 acres in those mountains as a national monument. The boundaries of that monument did not include the rock quarry.

Villa's permit expired Aug. 24, Sanders said. That decision closed the quarry.

Elation.  Disappointment.
Fossils within 50 acres of the quarry on the southern edge of the Robledos have been damaged over the years, although most of the fossils on thousands of acres in the Robledo area are undisturbed.

"They finally did it," said Jerry MacDonald, an amateur paleontologist from Las Cruces who discovered the Paleozoic-era trackways in 1987.

"What it does is it gets rid of the mixed message that was, by intent or not, being sent by the BLM, the fact that you could have the world's most important Paleozoic track sites and then have a working quarry breaking up trackway material for people's walls and floors," MacDonald said. "It just didn't make sense."

Ten mysteries of the mindVilla, however, said he was disappointed.

The permit had allowed him to take out 2,000 tons of rock per month. Villa said the quarry employed about 10 workers and that 20 others were employed building walls around Las Cruces with the material.

The boundaries of the proposed national monument include areas popular with off-road vehicle enthusiasts, and off-road groups have fought the proposal.

Members of four-wheel-drive groups in the Las Cruces area said last year the layer in the Robledos lacks enough exposed fossils to warrant the designation, and that existing BLM protections are enough.

Supporters of the monument have said fossil tracks are being pillaged despite the BLM's protection. They also say the thousands of fossils should be more accessible for public view, which would occur if the site became a monument.

Samples from the Robledo trackways are housing at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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