HOLBROOK – When Congress passed a law in 2004 doubling the size of the Petrified Forest National Park in eastern Arizona, lawmakers didn’t provide the money to buy private land within the expanded boundaries to make the parcel whole.
In the following years, ranchers on about 117,000 acres of the expansion area have considered selling to buyers other than the federal government. Environmentalists and others raised concerns about possible mining and continued looting on the land rich with ancient artifacts and fossils.
Those concerns could be partly addressed by the proposed federal budget now making its way through Congress. The budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes $4.5 million for land acquisition in the expansion area. That has renewed hope that the federal government will snatch up the land before private developers and commercial interests do.
But park Superintendent Cliff Spencer remains cautiously optimistic, knowing there are other priorities his park is up against. Still, he says, “I hope they would see this as a relatively small investment in a spectacular resource.”
Arizona’s two U.S. senators, Republicans John McCain and Jon Kyl, sponsored the legislation to expand the Petrified Forest from 93,533 acres to about 218,533 acres and support funding to buy up private land.
The $4.5 million is only about a fourth of what the National Park Service estimates it needs to purchase some 117,000 acres, held mainly by four landowners. The Park Service has acquired less than 200 acres through appropriations and 15,000 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management land through interagency transfers since the expansion was approved.
Smaller parcels of land have been subdivided and could require talks with up to 200 landowners to acquire their holdings, Spencer said.
Nationwide, the National Park Service has identified 2.8 million acres within park boundaries that it would like to acquire for resource protection, recreation or to stave off commercial development, said Joe Cook, chief realty specialist with the Park Service.
But with a budget that has been significantly reduced over the past 10 years, land acquisition hasn’t been easy. Funding for Park Service land acquisitions peaked at $147 million in fiscal year 1999 and hit a low in fiscal year 2006 at $34 million. Funding for fiscal year 2009 was $45 million.
Petrified Forest, designated a national monument in 1906 and a national park in 1962, is the site of rainbow-colored calcified wood and fossils that record the early Triassic period, considered the dawning age of dinosaurs. The archaeological sites include petroglyphs and areas once inhabited by early American Indian tribes.
Mike Fitzgerald, owner of the Twin Buttes Ranch on the southwest side of the park, thought his 28,650 acres would be a good fit for the National Park Service. He no longer runs cattle on the ranch where he’s seen American Indian artifacts, dinosaur bones and petroglyphs.
After years of anticipating the federal government’s purchase of it, the 58-year-old Fitzgerald once put the land on the market for $10.5 million, but he said it is not actively being marketed now. At this point, he said, he’d sell to anyone who will treat him right and give him a fair value for the land so that he can retire comfortably.
“I’ve totally given up on the park as far as them doing anything,” he said. “Someday they may.”
Ryan Hatch, whose family owns the 56,500-acre Paulsell Ranch, said although they have considered other offers for the property they remain committed to selling it to the federal government even if it takes a few more years. Appraisals for the property have come in at anywhere between $8.5 million and $28.2 million, Hatch said.
“No one is going to wait forever for the federal government to actually accomplish the goal they’ve stated, but we’re confident with the appropriation that will take place this year, we can take the necessary steps to get that property transferred,” he said.
The main road through the Petrified Forest cuts through the Paulsell Ranch, and many of the lookout points lie on the family’s property. If the land is subdivided, it “would ruin the viewshed from the existing park,” Hatch said.
Spencer, the park superintendent, said the park is being realistic with landowners about the funding. “They all understand that there’s not much we can do at the local level except for let it be known that there is an urgency there to get the appropriations in line,” he said.
The longer that takes, said Spencer, the higher the likelihood the land will be purchased or subdivided, or that the fossils that date back 220 million years will end up in the hands of looters.
That also could mean a loss in educational opportunities for researchers and students who have been unable to access private land in the expansion area, said David Gillette, curator of paleontology at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.
“This is a natural laboratory where we can train students of all ages in earth sciences,” he said. “There’s nothing like the experience of discovering a fossil or excavating a fossil.”