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Las Vegas lies at the edge of the vast Mojave Desert, in a bowl-shaped valley in the parched rain-shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The population of the city already numbers more than half a million, and if you count outlying suburbs and independent cities, the total number of people in the metro area is fast approaching two million, more than double what it was just a decade ago. Interestingly, visitors outnumber locals nearly 20 to one.

Because Las Vegas is an artificial playground built in the middle of the desert, is it any surprise that the valley may drain its entire water supply by the year 2021? Air pollution is another serious problem: the sky above the Strip is sometimes so dirty that you cannot see the mountains for the haze.

The reality is that the sustainability of this fragile desert environment is a huge concern. We think Al Gore would agree - it is an inconvenient truth that can no longer be ignored. But there is hope. An environmentally-conscious educational complex called the Springs Preserve is a breath of fresh air.

Spread over 180 acres atop the site of the original springs and las vegas (Spanish for "the meadows"), where Southern Paiute tribespeople and Old Spanish Trail traders once pitched their camps, and where Mormon missionaries and Western pioneers later settled the Las Vegas Valley, this $250-million museum complex takes visitors on an incredible trip through historical, cultural and biological time.

If you want to dig beneath the hard-scrabble surface of this desert oasis, start with the OriGen Experience. The "Natural Mojave" galleries simulate flash floods and expose the variety of native wildlife that calls this desert home, from Gila monsters to big brown bats.

The "People of the Springs" exhibit traces the city's obscure history, from Native American dwellings to the arrival of the railroad on the Western frontier and the construction of Hoover Dam. The "New Frontier" rooms are stocked with kid-friendly interactive multimedia games that teach about conservation, the environment and life in the modern city. Who knew slot machines could be so educational?

The touchstone of the Springs Preserve is the forward-thinking Desert Living Center. Nevada's first platinum-certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings stand proudly here, constructed of recycled materials and rammed-earth walls, with passive cooling, renewable heating, reclaimed water and solar-electricity panels, all harvesting clean energy. Inside the centre are classrooms, learning labs and public exhibits designed to inspire visitors to consider the future of the Strip's neon jungle.

Emerging from the main buildings, outdoor xeriscaped gardens flourish with more than 30,000 plants. Out back more than two miles of walking trails feature interpretive displays that piece together Nevada's cultural and natural history; bring along plenty of water and do not attempt to walk the trails in the blazing midday sun.

Afterward, stop by the nature-themed gift shop, which sells gifts, books, toys and brain-teaser souvenirs. Upstairs is the healthy, eco-conscious Café Wolfgang Puck. The Springs Preserve is also the future home of the Nevada State Museum.

While other green spaces inside the city limits are rare, a few casino hotels have gardens for making your escape from the smoke-filled gaming areas. Along the Strip, ride the monorail, a zero-emissions public transportation option. For excursions out of town, the Grand Canyon, Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead and the Valley of Fire will satisfy your nature-loving soul.

© Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Discover life in the Nevada desert’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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