PHOENIX - The federal government is gaining control over an even larger expanse of rainbow-colored petrified wood, fossils from the dawning age of dinosaurs and petroglyphs left by American Indian tribes who once lived in eastern Arizona.
The National Park Service secured the first major private ranch within the Petrified Forest National Park boundaries yesterday, capping off negotiations that began years ago with the help of a conservation group. Scientists say they are eager to explore the more than 26,000 acres that have remained largely untouched and discover even more treasures.
“The opportunity to actually go out into an area that hasn’t been worked before by other researchers, the opportunity to find things that are truly new to science - there’s a very good chance of that, so it’s pretty exciting,’’ said Bill Parker, a paleontologist at the park. “I think we’re definitely going to be able to find some things that are new out there that are really going to enhance the story of the park.’’
Congress expanded the boundaries of the park in 2004 from 93,500 acres to about 218,500 acres but did not immediately appropriate any money to buy the private holdings. The funding for land purchases came years later through a federal land protection program. The Park Service now has acquired about a third of the 120,000 acres it wants, with the most significant acreage coming from a transfer of US Bureau of Land Management land and yesterday’s $8 million purchase of the Paulsell Ranch within the park boundaries.
Mike Ford, the Southwest director for the Conservation Fund, said he began a quest to acquire the land for the Park Service in 1999 at the request of Bruce Babbitt, a former interior secretary. Ford recalled driving around in a pickup with the landowner, Marvin Hatch, surveying the land and trying to strike a deal that the two never quite agreed on. Hatch’s family contacted Ford after Hatch died to continue the talks.
The Park Service expects to spend a few years doing inventory on the land before it decides how the public can best enjoy it, Parker said. Some 630,000 people visit the park each year.