A decade ago, visitors at Petrified Forest National Park were stealing the park’s petrified wood at the rate of 12 tons a year. Warning signage, hefty fines, legal purchase options, and other countermeasures have done some good, but losses continue to mount. How much petrified wood is still leaving the park remains anybody’s guess.
Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, one of America’s most venerable parks, was established as Petrified Forest National Monument on December 8, 1906, by presidential proclamation. The park’s Painted Desert splendor, large size (147 square miles), and wilderness character make it a scenic delight and a wonderful venue for hiking and related recreation. But the thing that really excites people about this place, making it a magnet for over half a million visitors a year from all over America and the world, is the park’s large deposits of colorful petrified wood.
The park’s petrified wood was deposited around 225 million years old. The chain of events that produced these unusual deposits probably originated with a volcanic eruption that knocked down trees. The trees were subsequently washed into low-lying areas, became water-logged, and sank. The volcanic ash loaded the water with silica, which was then absorbed into the cells of the trees and solidified into multihued quartz that replaced the wood.
Sad to say, an awful lot of this colorful rock has been toted off in the handkerchiefs, pockets, packs, and gloveboxes of visitors over the years. Though it’s manifestly illegal, many people seem to believe that taking pretty fragments of the tan, purplish, and pink rock is not a serious transgression. They think “there’s lots of it, so taking a couple of souvenir pieces couldn’t hurt that much.” Of course, some who haul off petrified wood are serious thieves who sell what they steal.
Piece by piece, sometimes hundreds of pounds at a time, petrified wood continues to leave the park. Even if the 12 tons a year guesstimate is too high by an order or so of magnitude, the losses are still appalling. In some places in the park, the baseball- and softball sized pieces have already been carried off, leaving only pieces too large to carry or too small to bother with. In some of the more remote locations, visitors have used implements to attack larger pieces and hack off chucks small enough to easily transport.
Lyn Carranza, the park’s Chief of Interpretation/Public Information Officer, told me that countermeasures have stemmed the losses somewhat, but “theft remains a big problem.”
One problem is that the park is very large and contains two sprawling wilderness areas (over 52,000 acres) that lack maintained trails. Rangers are simply spread too thinly to make patrolling a highly effective remedy for the problem.
The countermeasures employed to date emphasize public education, signage, the threat of hefty fines, access restrictions, and legal purchase options. Park brochures and signage inform visitors that it’s illegal to disturb or remove the petrified wood in the park. As visitors exit the park, signage reminds them that theft of petrified wood is punishable by a hefty fine (currently over $300) and that cars are subject to search. Some people promptly get rid of their souvenirs when they see that signage. Each summer, rangers collect hundreds of pounds left behind this way.
Access cannot readily be restricted except in certain small areas of the park. On eight trails in developed areas, hiking and pedestrian traffic is restricted to the trail tread or designated walkway. Fencing is largely infeasible and used very scantily.
Making petrified wood souvenirs available for purchase is the most controversial of the countermeasures. As Ranger Carranza explained it to me, survey results implied that people would be much less likely to steal petrified wood if given a chance to buy it. The park’s concessionaire, the Fred Harvey Company (Xanterra), obtains petrified wood from legal sources and sells it on the park premises. Shops in the park vicinity also offer it for sale.
Getting legal supplies is a simple matter. About 90% of the petrified wood in northeastern Arizona is found outside the park, and much of it is on private land from which it can be collected and sold. (There are also petrified wood deposits on BLM, state of Arizona, and Navajo Nation land.)
Further research and monitoring will be needed to establish whether and to what degree the legal purchase option and other measures may reduce the theft of the park’s petrified wood. Meanwhile, management continues to hope that the theft problem will be brought within reasonable bounds.
Postscript: Conscience-smitten people often return petrified wood, sometimes even many months or years after it was taken from the park. Unfortunately, these returns can’t be restored to their original sites.