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 fa├žade 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

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The New Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest National Park has been around since 1962 and Petrified Forest National Monument the 56 years before that.  Throughout that history, challenges for park managers have exhibited some similarities – build and maintain infrastructure to permit visitors to enjoy the park, understand the resources under public stewardship and interpret what we know for visitors, and protect the resources under our care from damage or theft.  We organize our workforce around these basic responsibilities.  There has always been and always will be a balance to be struck between the competing mandates in the act that created the National Park Service – to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

It is my opinion that the balance struck at Petrified Forest in recent decades was an important factor in creating a narrative in the public arena that petrified wood theft was rampant and was degrading the resource the park had been created to protect.  Protecting park resources always must be our top priority – without resources visitors have nothing special to enjoy.  But the means of protection should be unobtrusive in order to allow responsible visitors, who are the vast majority, to enjoy the park.  Most visitors know the rules about removal of resources in national parks (not allowed!) and while some reinforcing and repetition of the rules is useful or even necessary, beating visitors over the head with the rules and their consequences became so counter-productive that the perception was created in a portion of the public that Petrified Forest National Park was in danger of not having any petrified wood left!  That’s always been preposterous but it shows how far afield basic logic can take you when the input is exaggerated.  For example, we used to say that “a ton a month” of petrified wood was removed from the park illegally, without good evidence to back up the number.  It’s not hard to see how people could extrapolate that figure in their thinking to devastating proportions.

So we have embarked upon a change in the way we talk about the park and the way people use the park.  We remain vigilant to resource theft and intercept violations as we encounter them.  However, we have created a series of “off the beaten path” hikes that highlight interesting backcountry destinations that have always been open but, with some clarity provided, become safe destinations for hikers.  We opened over 14,000 acres of newly acquired land this year, including a new access route to the Petrified Forest National Wilderness and a suggested hike to 220-million year old fossil clam beds that has never been available before.  We hope to open more newly acquired lands and destinations next year.  We are creating a walking trail between the Painted Desert Visitor Center and the Painted Desert Inn for those who want to get out into the environment right off the freeway, see a spectacular view of the Painted Desert, and leave the car behind for a while.  We are making both Rainbow Forest Museum and the Crystal Forest Trail more accessible this year for visitors with mobility impairments.  We’re continuing the updating of exhibit panels begun last year at Puerco Pueblo with new, updated panels throughout the northern part of the park.

We have created a series of repeat photographs – modern images taken from the same spot as historic photographs, sometimes over 100 years apart.  These images show that, except for construction of some facilities and some erosion, the petrified wood is right where it was decades ago.  Even smaller, presumably portable pieces are still there in most of the photos we’ve repeated so far.  Beyond the wood, these images tell other interesting stories about erosion and the park’s development history.

We are nearly complete with the rehabilitation of the 1930’s era checking station at Puerco Pueblo, which will include informative exhibits about the park’s archeology in a restored historic building.  We plan to start something similar with the stone building at Agate Bridge next year.  We have also entered into a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation on the long-term rehabilitation of the Painted Desert Community Complex, a unique facility designed in the modernist style, worthy of attention. 

Perhaps most importantly, we continue to do ground-breaking field work every summer in both paleontology and archeology.  We are doing a better job of getting word out about what we are accomplishing with this work and the work of our partner universities.  While our staffing in ecology has never had much consistency, we are working with the Arizona Gama and Fish Department on assessing the size and health of the prairie dog population on the park’s expansion lands to determine whether those lands might be appropriate habitat someday for the endangered black footed ferret. 

Our budgets are smaller and the acreage of our responsibility is much larger, which means our staff is stretched very thin.  However, park visitation is recovering from a modern low in 2008 of fewer than 550,000.  We expect to eclipse the 700,000 visitor mark this year for the first time since 1997.  We will continue to be as welcoming as we can be, talk freely about all the interesting stories the park has to tell, and, at the same time, relentlessly protect the resources under our charge.  Resource protection will remain what we do but not what we talk much about.