Most Arizonans are familiar with the Petrified Forest National Park in the northeast part of the state. Nowhere else can you find the fossilized remains of an ancient wilderness ecosystem, with petrified tree trunks that towered over Triassic swamplands 30 million years ago.
What fewer people probably know is that the boundaries of what was originally designated a national monument nearly 100 years ago actually protect only a small portion of the historic treasures of the area.
A rock formation known as the Chinle Escarpment cuts across the park, and since 1906 scientists have discovered countless dinosaur fossils and other paleontological deposits there, as well as nationally significant archeological sites like ruins and petroglyphs from the ancient Pueblo Indians. The escarpment contains some of the most unique natural and cultural historical resources anywhere in the world, and surely many more sites remain to be found.
These irreplaceable treasures face serious threats from illegal activities like the theft of petrified wood and fossils, pot hunting and vandalism, as well as the environmental degradation caused by mineral exploration. But until recently, only about six miles of the 22-mile escarpment were within the protection of the park’s boundaries. The rest amounted to a checkerboard of federal, state and private property.
Late last year, Congress passed the Petrified Forest National Park Expansion Act, which I co-sponsored with Senator John McCain, to expand the park to include an additional 120,000 acres, including the eastern and western portions of the Chinle Escarpment.
In the works for more than 10 years (the Park Service originally recommended enlarging the park in 1991), the bill eventually garnered the support of private landowners, local communities, scientific and research institutions, state tourism agencies and environmental groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association.
I was recently honored to receive the National Parks Conservation Association’s (NCPA) National Park Achievement Award for work on the bill; but, of course, it passed because of a massively collaborative effort including Senator McCain, Rep. Rick Renzi and the rest of Arizona’s House delegation, along with local scientists, Chambers of Commerce, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Gov. Janet Napolitano, State Land Commissioner Mark Winkleman, and many conservation activists such as the Sonoran Institute and of course the NPCA itself.
As the Arizona Republic pointed out in an editorial praising the expansion, “The unglamorous work begins now, starting with inventories and appraisals. Most of the private property can be acquired with land trades and ... $2 million in [available] federal funding, but some additional money will be necessary.”
And in fact we’re already working on getting more money for the Land and Water Conservation fund for just such purchases. But as the Republic pointed out, now is a time to take just a moment to celebrate our achievement.
The Chinle Escarpment may unlock answers to profound questions about our earth’s history, its changing environment and the people who have lived here. Protecting it is not only an opportunity to provide tourists with yet another interesting reason to visit Arizona. It’s also a boon to scientific research into the history of our state.
The Petrified Forest is just one of the unique and wonderful attributes of our state. I am proud to be involved in its expansion.
(Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., serves on the Senate Finance and Judiciary Committees and chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee.)