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.