State Sen. Chester Crandell (R-Heber) has blasted the latest effort to expand Petrified Forest National Park by buying thousands of acres of potentially fossil-rich land.
The last major expansion of the park drew broad congressional support, thanks to the impact of the nearly 700,000 annual visitors on the region’s economy and the world-class collection of fossils, including the massive petrified logs from which the windswept, high-desert park gets its name. Estimates suggest those visitors pump $80 million into the local economy annually.
However, the state senator who represents Rim Country decried the latest proposal to buy a 4,200-acre ranch from a conservation trust fund as “another federal erosion of our state’s sovereignty and economy.”
The National Park Service more than doubled the size of the park in 2004 by adding 125,000 acres, with money from oil and gas lease payments. The latest proposal would add to the existing 222,000 acres rich in 225-million-year-old fossils. The colorful Chinle Formation has yielded an unmatched sample of a massive tropical forest that existed on the brink of the mass extinction that cleared the way for the dinosaurs to dominate the planet.
Crandell criticized the purchase of some 20,000 acres of private land since 2011 to expand the park boundaries, with help from The Conservation Fund, a national organization that buys up private land for conservation.
Crandell said the purchase of the McCauley Ranch in January by The Conservation Fund for resale to the National Park Service represented “a classic straw-buyer scam” that would take land off the tax rolls.
“In the past 10 years, these ranches have paid tens of thousands of dollars in taxes that funded local schools and Northland Pioneer College, as well as public safety and criminal justice activities. The park’s expansion takes those taxes off the rolls and eliminates the jobs and economic activity that was occurring, all of which has a direct impact on the quality of our education and the safety of our residents.”
Crandell also voiced his concern that the expansion may complicate development of potash mining in the area. “In addition to reducing funding for our schools and public safety, the expansion potentially threatens hundreds of jobs by jeopardizing long-term plans for potash mining in the area.”
The layers of volcanic ash that could yield potash mines played a crucial role in the conversion of buried trees and extinct, dinosaur-like creatures into fossils, as the minerals in the ash replace the once-living cells.
The federal government owns about 83 percent of the land in western states — and more than 95 percent of the land in Gila County.
“In a state where only 17 percent of land is in private hands, any sale of private land in Arizona to the federal government raises new concerns,” Crandell explained. “When a federal land grab also jeopardizes economic development and jobs it causes grave concern.”
The federal government typically pays impact fees to schools and counties in rural areas that have so much federal land it narrows their property tax base. Payson schools, for instance, this year received nearly $400,000 in those so-called forest fees. However, the federal government has reduced those payouts — sometimes eliminating them entirely. The government used to raise the money for the fees from grazing and timber leases, but those activities have sharply declined in recent decades — causing the forest fee payments to dwindle.
“Our people were hit hard when the Catalyst Paper Mill shut down last year,” says Senator Crandell. “Several hundred people lost their jobs. Many are still out of work, and the potash mine would find an available skilled workforce.”
Sen. Crandell describes this as another blow to states’ rights. “Arizona is losing control of its lands.”
He also took a shot at U.S. Sen. John McCain, who strongly supported the expansion of Petrified Forest National Park, praising the business it generates by drawing people to the vast stretch of desert grasslands. Rep. Paul Gosar also supported the expansion at the time.
Sen. Crandell said, “This issue goes back to 2004, when Senator John McCain led the charge for the Petrified Forest National Park Expansion Act. That laid the groundwork for more private land to be swallowed up. I don’t think someone representing the interests of Arizona should be complicit in facilitating more land to be lost to the federal government.”
The expansion of the park to protect rich fossil beds has previously drawn broad support.
The latest purchase lies on the eastern edge of the park, in a checkerboard pattern with state-owned lands. The park had hoped to add some 46,000 acres in that area to the boundaries of the park by the end of this year.
A release by the Petrified Forest described the area as “badlands, grasslands and a riparian area — very scenic with abundant wildlife in the grasslands and riparian areas and miles of cliff line with the potential for archaeological sites.”
The release noted that the same formation exposed in the fossil-rich Blue Mesa Formations inside the park constitute about a third of the badlands exposures in the new property. These formations elsewhere have large amounts of petrified wood and “high fossil potential.”
Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History and the University of Texas have done preliminary research and made finds that include phytosaur skulls. These mammoth creatures looking like monster crocodiles with strange snouts once dominated swamps, lakes and streams. They vanished along with a host of other bizarre creatures in a mass extinction that killed 75 percent of all species at the end of the Triassic. The Petrified Forest represents one of the best places to study that lost world on the planet, with jumbles of trunks of at least seven species of trees, some of which once towered 200 feet tall in what must have resembled a cypress swamp.
A fluke of geology buried this whole ecosystem in layers of ash and mud that fossilized everything from the pollen to the toothy skulls of Rauisuchia, predators that hunted armored aetosaurs and 10-foot-long Temnospondyls, which looked like terrifying, mutant salamanders.
The mass extinction that killed them all has been linked to a planetary spasm of volcanism, climate shifts and perhaps even asteroid impacts. The massive die-off cleared the way for the emergence of the dinosaurs, which ruled the world for the next 150 million years. Another mass extinction did in the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, clearing the way for mammals to diversify and dominate.
Research on the fossil beds in the monument have already yielded a complex picture of both the ancient world of the swampy lowlands in the heart of a now dispersed supercontinent, not to mention valuable clues to the extinction that attended its abrupt destruction.