Sep 092011

By Teri Walker–

With the just-announced purchase of the 26,000-acre Hatch Ranch, Petrified Forest National Park is now one-third of the way to filling its expanded boundary authorized by Congress in 2004.

The National Park Service and The Conservation Fund of Arlington, Va., announced Thursday that the ranch, formerly owned by the Hatch Family Limited Partnership, is now federal property and under permanent protection within the boundaries of Petrified Forest National Park.

“This is an important day for us. This is a great day for us,” said Park Superintendent Brad Traver. “There is great potential for paleontological and archeological discovery on this land.”

Referring to the park as a “dynamic laboratory offering unparalleled opportunities for scientific research and one-of-a-kind discoveries,” the National Park Service and The Conservation Fund say the newly acquired lands are full of significant natural resources and early-human artifacts.

“The potential for notable paleontological discoveries on the new property far surpasses much of what is in the existing park boundaries,” said PFNP Paleontologist Bill Parker. “Institutions such as the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin have had success in the past finding fossils of animals and plants on this property. What we learn from these fossil deposits may dramatically increase our knowledge of life during the Triassic Period in Earth’s history.”

Archeologists are also eager to explore the new parklands.

“Preliminary surveys of the new property have shown potential for a number of archaeological sites including large, early basket maker villages and phenomenal petroglyph sites. Acquisition of this land may significantly enhance our knowledge of early peoples of the area,” said Park Archeologist Bill Reitze.

The Petrified Forest gets more than 631,000 visitors each year. Traver says the park will need time to determine what resources exist on the land and how best to provide public access to them.

Since Congress approved the expansion of the national park boundary by 125,180 acres in 2004, the park had only been successful in transferring 15,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands into the park. That transfer took place in 2007. Stiff competition with other national parks for the limited reserves of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pays for federal land purchases, had kept Petrified Forest from being able to acquire the adjacent additional lands.

The Conservation Fund, a non-profit organization, fronted money to take the Hatch Ranch off the market until Petrified Forest could negotiate pricing and secure funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase the property. The purchase price for the ranch was not disclosed at press time.

The Hatch Ranch is located primarily along the eastern edge of the existing park, and is intermingled among sections of Arizona State Land Department lands. Traver said the park is hopeful it can develop a reasonable management agreement with the state, considering the checkerboard pattern of park and state sections, which will require coordination for access and compatible uses. The state is mandated to make money on lands under its ownership, which in Arizona often includes activities such as mining or grazing. Traver would like the state to allow temporary access to its lands and consider the impacts of state land activity on the preservation mission of the park.

Traver doesn’t anticipate acquiring the state lands anytime soon, as the sale of state lands requires an amendment to the state constitution, a lengthy and, depending on the political climate, often unpopular proposition.

Traver said the park has purchased the surface rights to the Hatch Ranch only; the park does not own the mineral rights to the land, which leaves the door open for the Hatch Family Limited Partnership to enter into mineralization agreements with any of the potash operators currently exploring the area for future mining. Some of the richest deposits of potash, according to historic data, are found under the lands identified for park expansion, and potash operators have been working with area landowners to secure lands outright, and to develop various royalty agreements.

Principals of the Hatch Ranch could not be reached to learn of their plans for the property’s mineral deposits.

Traver said next steps for the newly acquired land will be to improve the maps of the area now that park personnel can more intensively explore the area, determine where fences will be, coordinate with the state regarding its adjacent lands, and lay out a plan for conducting the archeological and paleontological inventories. Eventually, the park will undertake a general management planning process for the new lands, which will include such things as assessing wilderness value, and determining how and where public access will take place.

The park is continuing in its efforts to acquire the land that will expand it to its Congressionally approved 218,533 acres.

“After so many years it is a relief and joy to celebrate this major step toward completing the promise of the 2004 park boundary expansion,” said Kevin Dahl, Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “As for the future, we hope the Land and Water Conservation Fund can be used soon to purchase the other equally significant private lands within Petrified Forest National Park that face the alternative of inappropriate mining development.”

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

President Theodore Roosevelt established Petrified Forest National Monument under the Antiquities Act in 1906 to protect the 225-million-year-old trees, fossils and archeological resources from commercialization, collection and vandalism. In 1962, the area was designated a National Park. In 2004, Congress more than doubled the park’s boundaries to preserve resources associated with the late Triassic Period.

(map coming soon)

Map courtesy of the National Park Service

The Hatch Ranch is located south of Interstate 40 and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. The ranch begins east of Puerco Pueblo and Blue Mesa, excluding section numbers 11, 7, 1, 31 and 29, to the east and north of Puerco Pueblo; and sections 19, 31 and 33, east of Blue Mesa. A few sections of the ranch are located south of the railroad to the west of Newspaper Rock, including sections 7, 8, 19, 30, and a portion of 31.