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.