Jun 222011

By Teri Walker–

Scientists have been unearthing something on the order of one to two new species a year at Petrified Forest National Park for the past few years, and that has new Park Superintendent Brad Traver excited and focused.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve added several new species to science through discoveries at this park. The things found here are influencing the field of study surrounding the Triassic Period. The work of the scientists here is significant,” said Traver, who officially took the helm at the Petrified Forest on May 22.

Traver, who has been with the National Park Service for 30 years, has taken up a permanent post at Petrified Forest, where he served as interim superintendent a few years ago.

“I’m thrilled to be headed back to Petrified Forest where I spent a few months in 2007 that were a highlight of my career,” said Traver.

Speaking of what he thinks is significant about the Petrified Forest, Traver said, “Each national park has its unique characteristics. The Petrified Forest has its own scenic beauty, but it isn’t highly scenic on the order of the Grand Canyon, or highly recreational like some of the other parks in the national system.

“This park has primarily a scientific story to tell, and our mission is to produce good science,” he said.

Traver said that mission is being accomplished through increased study of the park’s archeological and paleontological resources by on-site staff along with research partners from various universities and organizations.

Traver anticipates the park’s expansion to encompass the wider boundaries approved by Congress in 2004 will yield even more significant archeological and paleontological finds, including fossils of plants and animals dating 225 million years into the past.

When scientists will begin exploring the expanded landscape remains to be seen, as the pace of land acquisition has been slow.

In 2004, Congress authorized new boundaries, which added 125,000 acres to the Petrified Forest. Filling out the new boundaries is dependent on the Park Service’s acquisition of the surrounding lands from myriad private landowners and public agencies.

Since the boundary authorization, the Bureau of Land Management has transferred 15,000 acres to the Petrified Forest, leaving 115,000 acres of private and state land yet to be acquired. At the time of the authorization, the Park Service estimated it would take approximately $12 million to complete all the necessary purchases for expansion. Since the expansion was approved, other potential uses for the land, such as wind and solar energy production, and potash mining, have been identified, which would affect future land valuation.

Traver said the park is continuing to work to acquire the lands from what he characterizes as “willing sellers,” explaining that as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is the pot used to fund the purchase of federal lands, is infused with money from Congress for the expansion, the land purchases will continue. The park competes with other agencies for the Land and Water funds, so it isn’t possible to predict precisely when all the expansion lands will finally be added to the park.

The expansion does not have to be complete for research in new areas to move forward. Traver said the expansion lands were surveyed prior to the new boundaries being set, so park managers can begin planning how they will approach each parcel of land as it is added to the park system.

Traver is concerned about the exploration for potash mining that is taking place in the area of the park expansion, noting that preservation and mining are typically mutually exclusive endeavors.

“We can’t protect resources that are being mined,” he said.

Traver hopes surrounding landowners who are involved with potash exploration will be willing to discuss options that may allow both land uses to be satisfied. Traver plans to reach out to land owners on this issue in the near future.

“There may be some ways we can come together on this. My hope is that the potash could be extracted in a way that doesn’t preclude protection of the park,” he said.

Asked whether the potential for potash mining in the area is making landowners less willing to sell their holdings to the park, Traver said that as far as he knows, there aren’t other purchase offers being made to landowners at this time. Traver said the potential potash operations do not change the park’s expansion approach.

“Our objective is to preserve the resources that are entrusted to us and encourage people to enjoy them,” he said.

In addition to supporting scientific research efforts in the field, continuing with expansion, and the general maintenance and operation of the park, Traver said he will also oversee the rehabilitation of the park’s complex of administrative and visitor facilities.

Originally constructed in 1963, facilities are overdue for improvements, Traver said. An area of the complex that was originally designed to be an interpretive plaza, but never used for that purpose, will likely be developed, providing additional educational opportunities for visitors.

As superintendent at Petrified Forest, Traver manages more than 108,000 acres, an annual operating budget of nearly $3 million and a staff of approximately 50 full-time employees.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Brad Traver

Map courtesy of Petrified Forest National Park

The expanded boundary of the Petrified Forest encompasses 125,000 additional acres.