Saturday, April 9, 2016

The superintendent's blog is evolving into a vlog! The new site is at the Petrified Forest National Park's website: The vlog will go live in a few days. Thanks for checking out the blog here!

Friday, October 23, 2015

The End of Another Era

Harvey Girl in front of the Painted Desert Inn, 1950
In 1946, Fred Harvey Company began operating the Painted Desert Inn.  There was a lunch counter and a restaurant and a gift shop for Route 66 travelers, with a stunning view into the Painted Desert.  The Inn was only ten years or so into its life as a pueblo-style building serving National Monument visitors.  It was intended to be an attraction to get Route 66 travelers off the road and directed south to see the petrified wood at Jasper, Crystal, and Rainbow forests, and the museum 25 miles away. 

Café at Painted Desert Community Complex, 1963
In 1963, Fred Harvey Company built a new building as part of the Painted Desert Community Complex and moved their operation out of Painted Desert Inn.  Route 66 was in the process of being replaced by Interstate 40 and the old pueblo style Inn must have seemed old fashioned compared to the modern design of the Complex.  In addition to the restaurant and gift shop, a gas station was included in the services to be provided.

In the more than 50 years since then, Fred Harvey Company has been bought and sold but the parent companies have continued to provide hospitality services in national parks and monuments across the country.  Today, Xanterra Parks and Resorts still holds the contract to provide those services at Petrified Forest and is the largest concession company in the National Park Service. 

1963 and Today

The current contract with Xanterra expires at the end of this year and the NPS has invited bids for a new contract starting in 2016.  Xanterra has decided not to bid, ending what will be a 70 year run of providing hospitality services at Petrified Forest National Monument and National Park.  

 want to thank Xanterra for this long partnership with the park and, in particular, for agreeing to continue to provide services the last 21 years on 1-year contract extensions.  The company was not required to continue operating and could have said “enough is enough” at any time in those 21 years but they did not and continued to serve the visiting public.  Xanterra has been a good partner with Petrified Forest over these many years and we are grateful for their long service to park visitors.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

New Websites

In the last few weeks there have been significant improvements to the on-line presence of the Petrified Forest community.  Thanks to volunteer Denise Traver, the Friends of Petrified Forest and the Petrified Forest Field Institute have new homes on the web. 

The Friends of Petrified Forest is a collection of the park’s closest supporters who donate their time and money to help the park achieve its mission.  In recent years, the Friends have played an instrumental role in supporting a vibrant summer intern program for archeology and paleontology students to gain some field experience as well as donating their time to park projects on each of the two volunteer days, spring and fall, organized by the park.  The Friends of Petrified Forest is just getting started and could use your support.  Thank you.

The Petrified Forest Field Institute is a new undertaking for the Petrified Forest Museum Association.  This new service offers expert guides in various fields leading half-day or full-day classes that explore the resources of Petrified Forest.  This year’s introductory slate of classes encompasses paleontology, rock art, landscape photography, natural history, and a general park overview.  The instructors are some of the best-known names in leading field classes in Northern Arizona – at least a couple of them teach similar classes around the world.  The park and PFMA hope that there will be enough interest in these classes to expand their number next year, to include multi-day classes with camping in the park.  Eventually, maybe as soon as next year, when the park’s expansion lands and the State Trust lands that abut them are available for guided access, a whole new park will emerge as a classroom for Field Institute classes.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Petrified Forest National Park, and many other park areas around the country, relies heavily on the good services provided by volunteers.  In our fiscal year 2014, volunteers contributed over 15,000 hours of work to Petrified Forest, the equivalent of more than 7 full time employees and, at Arizona rates, worth over $300,000.  That work consisted of greeting visitors at the visitor centers, walking with them on trails and answering questions, watering landscape plants, conducting scientific field work in paleontology, archeology, and biology, doing trail construction projects, and removing internal ranch fences no longer needed after the park’s purchase of the Hatch (Paulsell) and McCauley Ranches in 2011 and 2013, respectively.  Last Labor Day weekend, over 50 volunteers provided both leadership and legwork to the mini bio-blitz conducted on the newly acquired lands and recorded nearly 250 species of plants and animals in a 24 hour period.  The accomplishments of volunteers are crucial additions to what the staff does and in some cases, the work done by volunteers would not be done at all without them.

Short Horned Lizard discovered on Bio-Blitz (NPS)

Our volunteers come from all over the country.  Often, they bring their own housing with them and stay in our trailer pads for a month or a few months before they either head back home or to their next volunteer or travel destination.  We recruit volunteers through the website . 

Volunteer Trish Jackson (NPS)
This weekend, 27 volunteers have signed up to help us remove more fence from the Paulsell Ranch.  We are prioritizing the mesh fence as opposed to the barbed wire fence because the mesh is more difficult if not impossible for pronghorn and other wildlife to cross.  Since the fence is no longer needed to manage livestock, it is an impediment to wildlife movement and important for us to remove.  This will be the third volunteer day focused on fence removal – to date, approximately 2 miles of mesh fence and 2.8 miles of barbed wire fence have been removed by volunteers.  This weekend’s crew will be larger than other days and we hope to remove another 6 miles of mesh fence.  Considering the added workload of maintaining roads and exterior fencing we need to keep when we acquired these ranches, removal of internal fencing would not happen at all if not for these volunteer efforts.

Volunteers working on the fenceline (NPS)
We are grateful to all the volunteers who give their time, expertise, and effort to make Petrified Forest National Park a better place in so many different ways. 
Bio-Blitz (NPS)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Bearing Fruit

I started this Blog with a piece about how we are thinking and talking about the park differently, how we are creating new opportunities for visitors to enjoy the park and trying to be more welcoming. One way to measure whether we are having an effect is to review the numbers of visitors who experience the park. In 2014, Petrified Forest visitation grew by nearly 30% to 836,919 visitors.

While we will take some credit for this growth based on the new opportunities and attitude we are offering, it is also true that some of the growth can be attributed to low fuel prices, an improving economy, and comparison to the year before, which included the government shutdown. In fact, had the shutdown not occurred, visitation in 2013 would likely have been in the area of 700,000 visitors and 2014 would mark the third year in a row of visitation growth.

Digging a little deeper, October and December of last year were records for those months. The single year increase of 29.8% was the largest since 1956. For the year, the total was the largest since 1995.

We think this one-year result is important—and it’s only important to us if there is a component of it that is responding to our actions. Low gas prices and an improving economy are nice but beyond our control. If we can attribute a portion of the growth to our actions, it means that we have the chance to make a national park experience at Petrified Forest relevant to more people. If we are relevant to more people, we validate what we do. If we are relevant to more people, we help our local communities who are more eager, in turn, to help us. If we are relevant to more people, we gain stature in the public eye and the public willingness to further protect the park grows. If we are relevant to more people, we improve our chances of perpetuating the park’s protection through our political system.

Visitation numbers are not the only feedback mechanism we have but it is the easiest to track. We are also keeping an eye on press reports, comments we get directly from visitors, comments visitors make on sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp, and our own social media accounts. We are getting positive feedback in all areas. Our annual summer survey of 400 park visitors in 2014 to assess how visitors feel about the facilities and services we offer was our best in recent memory, exceeding the 8 year average in every category. We are excited to be getting this positive feedback and will continue to do our best to provide a good national park experience—not to grow the numbers but to grow our relevance to the American public.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The End of an Era

At the end of November, Petrified Forest National Park will lose two icon employees to retirement – Bobby and Johnnie Morris.  These brothers started working at Petrified Forest in 1962 – the same year it changed from a National Monument to a National Park.  It’s also the same year the headquarters building was being built.  Although Johnnie worked elsewhere for a couple of years early on, together they still dedicated over 102 years of their time and effort to the park.

Both of these gentlemen are warm and easy to smile.  Bobby, the older brother, has been a painter for most of his career, on the maintenance crew.  He is fond of telling anyone who asks that he was responsible for the Painted Desert, a portion of which is included in the park.  When asked when he’ll need to repaint it, Bobby will say, “After a rain, when the colors come out.”  Johnnie has been an equipment operator for most of his career, operating a road grader, backhoe, and loader, primarily.  He is quieter by nature and his work placed him more often on the road maintenance crew. 

The brothers are more comfortable speaking Navajo than English (although their English is fine) and you won’t get a reply if you try to email them.  Nevertheless, they have been teachers and mentors to many of the members of the Petrified Forest maintenance crew over their decades of service.  They have touched every system, building, road, and trail in the park, multiple times.  They helped build the headquarters complex and were still on staff when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  And they have touched every employee at Petrified Forest over the last 50 years, too, with their smiles and kindness. 

When you think that Petrified Forest was first set aside 108 years ago and realize that these two gentlemen have been working at the park nearly half that time, it’s not hard to imagine that they are not only the longest-serving employees in the history of the park but could likely be the longest serving there ever will be – certainly there will never be a pair of siblings who duplicate their feat. 

At their retirement party recently, Bobby told me he used to regale his grandchildren with stories of he and his brother wrangling dinosaurs in order to keep them from eating people.  As evidence he would point to the skeletons on display in the park’s museum.  We will miss Bobby and Johnnie Morris, although they will not be too far away – two daughters and one son of these brothers continue working at the park and Bobby will continue painting as a park volunteer in December.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A New National Treasure

The fact that Petrified Forest National Monument was created in 1906 and converted to Petrified Forest National Park in 1962 is ample evidence that the resources there to protect have long been considered a national treasure.  But it’s a newer resource – one not built until after national park status was achieved – that is the latest to hold that title.

The Painted Desert Community Complex was one of five projects during the Mission 66 nationwide re-building program for which the National Park Service commissioned designs by noted American architects of the time.  Of the five projects (the other four were in Dinosaur National Monument, Wright Brothers National Memorial, Gettysburg National Historical Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park) only three remain.  The Cyclorama at Gettysburg was demolished in 2013 due to its location in an area now considered inappropriate and the Quarry Visitor Center at Dinosaur developed structural problems and was also demolished in recent years.  The firm of Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander designed both the Petrified Forest and Gettysburg projects.  Richard Neutra was a well-known modernist architect, working mostly in southern California.  He had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright early in his career and had made his name through his use of glass, steel, and concrete or masonry in rectilinear and unadorned shapes.  The selection of Neutra to design projects for the National Park Service, which was only 15 years or so removed from the end of the CCC era and its rustic style, was exceptionally bold.

The Painted Desert Community Complex was the only project of these, and maybe the only one during the Mission 66 program, that included facilities for all aspects of park operation.  It is a small planned community that included public facilities in the visitor center with adjacent concession services around a central plaza as well as maintenance shops, employee housing, a school, and community center.  The project even included the park entrance station.  Very few, if any, other projects in the NPS encompass this scope.  Neutra and Alexander’s design used building massing and the austerity of their design ethic to brilliantly separate incompatible uses in such a way that each use can function well and independently of the others, all in a relatively small space.  It is the genius of this arrangement of spaces when added to the architect’s prominence, the importance of the Mission 66 program as a whole, and the importance of the Painted Desert Community Complex as a highlight of that program that has led the Complex to achieve a greater recognition in recent years as a collection of buildings and landscapes worthy of protection.

The architects visited the site of the project in May of 1958.  I surmise that the wind was blowing hard that spring day because the main environmental feature of the complex, appropriately, is protection from wind.  The entire Complex is oriented to turn its back on the southwest, the direction much of the wind comes from at this site.  The architects drafted an explanation of their housing designs they called “Homes for National Park Service Families on a Wind-Swept Desert”. 

Built in the early 1960’s, the Complex began having structural problems right away due to both soil problems and poor construction practices.  The first post-construction structural analysis was completed in 1965 – several others followed.  The most recent one is from 2009.  The structural problems were not adequately addressed and kept getting worse.  The roofs of many modernist buildings, including these, were designed to be perfectly flat and failed, predictably, giving all flat roofs a bad name in the process.  When energy prices went up, the large expanses of glass became more expensive to keep.  As vehicles got bigger, the entrance station and the gas station canopy were not tall enough to accommodate them.  By 1993, when the park updated its master planning in a new General Management Plan, the Complex had been a failure that was considered too expensive in maintenance costs to retain.  The park proposed to demolish the Complex and rebuild something new and larger in its place. 

By 2004, whether due to economic realities or a reassessment of the Complex, thinking had changed and a revision of the General Management Plan included the decision to retain and rehabilitate the Painted Desert Community Complex.  In 2005, the Painted Desert Community Complex Historic District was created, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  In 2006, a thorough Historic Structure Report and Cultural Landscape Report were completed and have been used as a guide for the modest rehabilitation work that has been done since.

This year, Petrified Forest has entered into a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation on the sustainable rehabilitation of the Painted Desert Community Complex.  The Trust has designated the Complex one of its NationalTreasures and will work with the National Park Service by raising the profile of the Complex, providing expertise, planning, and perhaps some fundraising toward its sustainable rehabilitation.  When the National Treasure web page was uploaded, there was a companion blogpost also uploaded by modernist advocate Chris Madrid French in the Preservation Leadership Forum. 

As the Treasure page says, the major threat to the Complex is the lack of funding for its rehabilitation.  We have successfully competed for occasional NPS capital funds to stabilize the foundations of three buildings (Community Building in 2009, Visitor Center in 2014, and Block A housing units in 2015) and to replace heating and cooling systems in the Visitor Center (2010 and 2012, respectively).  We used our cyclic maintenance allocation to replace obsolete windows in the administrative offices this year, and we have used operating funds to restore the Visitor Center balcony and planter and the main façade of the School.  Despite those inroads, millions of dollars are still needed to address all the needs at the Complex.  The NPS Centennial may provide the next opportunity to continue raising the profile of this Complex, get additional partners excited about its sustainable rehabilitation, and get some of the high-profile work done that NPS funding sources are not likely to reach.  These projects include restoring the glass storefront to the restaurant and gift shop, restoring flat roofs to the Visitor Center and Painted Desert Oasis (concession building), restoring at least a portion of the gas station canopy, re-exposing the terrace off the southeast side of the Visitor Center building, and returning the restaurant to its original diner design. 
It’s also true that there is inadequate fire protection, the plumbing and electrical systems are over 50 years old, and many other components need attention if the Complex is to serve as park headquarters for another 50 years.  The less public buildings like housing and maintenance shops will be harder to get a partner’s help with.  We will keep our shoulder to the wheel and try to make quality improvements that recognize and appreciate the Painted Desert Community Complex’s unique place in the history of the park and the country as another of the National Treasures under our care.

Painted Desert Visitor Center Front

Fred Harvey Company 1963
Fred Harvey Company: Xanterra 2013

Painted Desert Visitor Center Balcony 1963

Painted Desert Visitor Center Balcony 2007

Painted Desert Visitor Center Balcony 2012

Painted Desert Diner 1963

Painted Desert Diner 2013