March 31, 2008

Petrified Forest park expansion stalled

"It's so important, but the Park Service can't figure a way to pay for it or trade for it."

By Dennis Wagner

Larry Baldwin, a Holbrook private investigator stands at the site of petrified wood theft on state land near the Petrified Forest National Park in 2002. Beneath him is the site of an unearthed 70-foot petrified tree.
Mark Shaffer, The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX — Government plans to more than double the size of Petrified Forest National Park appear to be in jeopardy because Congress has failed to come up with the cash to buy surrounding properties it approved for expansion in 2004.

Without government funding, an irreplaceable treasure of dinosaur bones and Indian ruins may be lost as ranchers sell off their spreads for subdivision and development, according to David Gillette, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Petrified Forest is just one of 56 federal historic and recreation sites that "could lose land inside their borders to developers this year," according to a study to be released April 8, by the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association.

The report, "America's Heritage: For Sale," identifies Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland as other examples.

Glenna Vijil, a realty officer with the National Park Service, said only one small tract of land has been acquired since expansion was approved. She acknowledged that prices have risen dramatically in three years, and subdivision could drive them higher.

Calculating the total price of expansion lands is guesswork, she said, because there is no current appraisal. Vijil estimates the figure for the Petrified Forest acquisition at about $20 million based on land prices of about $150 per acre.

Vijil said the problem is chronic at national parks nationwide. Because Petrified Forest is now in the top five on a priority list, she added, "I'm optimistic that we will get funding … even if it's just a start."

Andrea Keller Helsel of the National Parks Conservation Association said there was no projected cost for the expansion when it was authorized.

According to Helsel, Congress has appropriated $44.4 million for National Parks expansion purchases in 2008. The National Parks Service has a wish list of 1.8 million acres it would like to acquire, she said, at a projected cost of $2 billion.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who chairs the Committee on House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, has proposed a mandatory spending program of $100 million annually over the next decade. Petrified Forest sprawls over nearly 100,000 acres of unique geological turf between Heber and Holbrook, Ariz. Scientists say surrounding ranchlands are peppered with relics that could serve as windows into prehistoric eras.

After hearing testimony from paleontologists and archaeologists in 2004, Congress agreed to more than double the park's size, authorizing a 125,000-acre expansion. The Park Service put dotted lines on maps to show the new boundaries.

The government has offered no money to ranchers since then. Federal land-exchange proposals flopped. And, now, one of the most critical parcels — Twin Buttes Ranch — is up for sale.

Twin Buttes Ranch, which covers 60 square miles, including some lease lands, is a veritable museum of dinosaur skeletons and Pueblo ruins preserved by a convergence of geography and natural history, Gillette said.

Gillette testified during a 2004 congressional hearing that the Triassic Period, 220 million years past, is frozen in time here along with centuries-old Indian ruins. He told lawmakers that the land holds "a bonanza of secrets" that may help in dealing with present-day environmental problems.

"Gut-wrenching stories of predator-prey interactions, floods that carried trees as large as giant redwoods into log jams, and the humble beginnings of our modern world can be pried from the rocks. … We cannot afford to lose these stories, or the ability to share them," Gillette testified.

Owner Mike Fitzgerald, 57, said he supported government plans to acquire his land. Cattle prices had fallen, and drought wiped out his herd. So he sat back and waited for an offer that might fund his retirement.

"I have a lot more petroglyphs (ancient rock art) on my place than the park has," Fitzgerald noted. "We had a ranger come through here and he says, 'Gosh, you've got enough for two national parks.' "

Fitzgerald said he thought his lands would be purchased within a few years, but nothing happened. Last month, he quit waiting and put up a "For Sale" sign, with an asking price of $10.5 million.

Even his Scottsdale real estate agent, Brett Rubin, frets that the public is about to lose a priceless resource. "It's so important, but the Park Service can't figure a way to pay for it or trade for it," Rubin said. Fitzgerald said he'd like to be a good steward. But if a developer comes along with cash, "I'd take it. I feel like the government had their chance."

Fitzgerald got the Twin Buttes, oddly enough, as part of a federal land exchange in 1986. At that time, his family owned a ranch near the Painted Desert.

He said the government was trying to resolve a turf dispute between the Hopi and Navajo tribes and needed land to make the deal work. So the Fitzgeralds swapped for this giant tract between Holbrook and Heber, Ariz., only to have the government want it back two decades later.

Wagner reports for the The Arizona Republic