Petrified Forest National Park
Expansion lands at Petrified Forest National Park. Photo by NPS.
Photo courtesy Scott T. Williams, National Park Service
Did You Know?
- The park is nearly 350 square miles (more than 221,000 acres).
- The petrified wood is made up of almost solid quartz and is extremely heavy.
- Most fossils in the Petrified Forest are more than 200 million years old.
- Two types of fresh water sharks once lived in this area.
- There is evidence of more than 13,000 years of human history in the park.
"The potential for notable paleontological discoveries on the new property [acquired in 2011] far surpasses much of what is in the existing park boundaries." — paleontologist Bill Parker.
“The exceptional and irreplaceable prehistoric resources found at Petrified Forest National Park have amazed and captivated Americans for generations, and they should be preserved for the insights they provide into our nation’s cultural and ecological history,” — Mike Ford, Southwest Director for The Conservation Fund.
Arizona’s Petrified Forest is famous for its expansive vistas—stark moon-like landscapes and the colorful eroding badlands of the Painted Desert—and the rainbow hues of large petrified trees found throughout the park. Once a lush landscape of trees and riverways, the park now offers unparalleled opportunities for scientific research and one-of-a-kind experiences for more than 630,000 visitors each year.
Expanding The Petrified Forest
As a popular destination for Americans for generations, it may come as a surprise that not all of the land in and around the park is saved for public enjoyment. With projects in 2011 and 2013, we helped expand the Petrified Forest National Park (PFNP) by more than 30,000 acres—more than 25 percent.
The Fund’s latest effort began in 2013 with the protection of more than 4,200 acres within the PFNP boundary. Working with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), we purchased the land in January. The National Park Service then utilized the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)—America’s premier conservation program—to acquire the property at the end of the year.
Known as the McCauley Ranch, the newly-added lands lie east of the historic remains of Puerco Pueblo and will connect lands already protected within PFNP. Located in a unique stretch of northeast Arizona, where visitors can see petrified trees that have turned completely into stone during the last 225 million years, this property not only preserves the natural viewshed that visitors experience as they drive on the main road through the park, it also secures many fossil-producing sites that have already shown to be ideal locations for exciting new paleontological discoveries.
During the summer of 2013, researchers unearthed a well preserved, two-foot- long phytosaur skull, a distant ancestor of the modern crocodile, on the property. They also uncovered a new find for Petrified Forest National Park, a Doswellia, which is a close relative to the phytosaur. A rich layer of fossil material was identified below the bones that could be the bottom of an ancient pond. Continued excavation will help to determine the pond’s ecosystem and identify the kinds of prehistoric fish, amphibians, reptiles and plants that once lived there.
In 2011 we helped the National Park Service add 26,000 acres to the park, expanding it by roughly a quarter.
The 26,000 acres of acquired lands were previously privately owned and managed as ranchland by the Hatch Family Partnership. These lands now connect areas already managed by the state of Arizona and the National Park Service. This acquisition helps ensure that the park continues to provide significant economic benefits to local communities and businesses through tourism.
A Treasure Trove Of Fossils: Petrified Forest As A Laboratory
While most noted for its petrified trees, the park also is known as a Late Triassic treasure trove and has evidence of ancient human settlements. The newly acquired acres offer paleontologists and archaeologists important access to an area of the Puerco River valley. Since these lands had been privately owned they were off-limits to collecting until their addition to the park.
“The potential for notable paleontological discoveries on the new property far surpasses much of what is in the existing park boundaries,” said paleontologist Bill Parker in 2011 about the 26,000 acquired acres. In other areas of the park, fossil hunters have turned up over a thousand specimens—including, in the 1980s, Gertie, thought to be a 250-million-year-old Staurikosaur. “What we learn from these fossil deposits may dramatically increase our knowledge of life during the Triassic Period in Earth’s history.”
“We’re basically a laboratory, ” says Parker. “We have the exposed rock layers, we have the fossils, and we have the logistical support that scientists need to do their work successfully. We guide them through the process, getting permits, etc., to make it possible. Even more than that, we are a scientific collaborator.”
The new lands also will offer opportunities to explore new cultural archaeological sites. Park archaeologist Bill Reitze notes, “Preliminary surveys of the [26,000 acres] have shown potential for a number of archaeological sites including large, early basketmaker villages and phenomenal petroglyph sites. Acquisition of this land may significantly enhance our knowledge of early peoples of the area.”
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt used his authority, provided by the Antiquities Act, to establish Petrified Forest National Monument in order to protect the area’s mineralized trees, fossils and archaeological resources from commercial exploitation, illegal collecting and vandalism.
In 1962, Congress designated the area as a national park and in 2004, the Arizona Congressional delegation championed the passage of boundary expansion legislation authorizing the potential expansion of the park from 93,353 acres to 218,533 acres. The Fund’s addition to the park was made possible because of this legislation. Additional acres could be added in the future.