By Nick Worth
A total of 4,265 acres were added to Petrified Forest National Park Dec. 30, according to the National Park Service, The Conservation Fund (TCF) and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).
The land, formerly known as the McCauley Ranch, was purchased by TCF in January 2013, with a substantial contribution from the NPCA. The National Park Service then utilized the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to acquire the property.
Each year Congress funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a bipartisan program that uses a percentage of proceeds from offshore oil and gas royalties– not taxpayer dollars.
According to Ann Simonelli of TCF, The Conservation Fund purchased the property a year ago and then held it for the Park Service until the federal dollars were freed up through the LWCF. The NPS then purchased the acreage from TCF.
“It cost a little over $300 per acre,” said Simonelli. “It comes out to about $1.3 million.”
“The Conservation Fund has been a great partner for us,” said Petrified Forest Supervisor Brad Traver. “They purchased the land back in 2013 and now we have it.”
The newly acquired property lies east of the historic remains of Puerco Pueblo and connects lands already protected within the park.
According to a press release from TCF, the protection of this property as part of the park preserves the natural viewshed that visitors experience as they drive on the main road through the park. Petrified Forest hosts over 631,000 visitors each year.
“This land is instrumental because it provides a link between the old park and the Hatch Ranch we bought in 2011,” said Traver. “Later this year we expect to open large areas of these new lands for public use.”
According to TCF, the addition of the property to the park, “also secures many fossil-producing sites that have already been shown to be ideal locations for exciting new paleontological discoveries.”
“The Conservation Fund was kind enough to let us get out there this summer and start looking around,” said Traver. “Bill Parker, the park paleontologist, has had his eye on that property for a long time.”
This past summer, researchers unearthed a two-foot-long phytosaur skull on the property. In addition to the phytosaur, a distant ancestor of the modern crocodile, they also uncovered a Doswellia, which is a close relative to the phytosaurs and a new find for Petrified Forest National Park.
A rich layer of fossil material was identified below the bones that could be the bottom of an ancient pond. Continued excavation will help to determine the pond’s ecosystem, and identify the kinds of prehistoric fish, amphibians, reptiles and plants that once lived there.
“That one particular spot is very rich in fossils, so we should be able to continue digging there for years to come,” said Traver.
In a statement announcing the acquisition, NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis called the land purchase “an important milestone in the National Park Service’s joint effort with our partners to protect the rich natural and cultural landscape in and around Petrified Forest National Park.”
Simonelli said TCF has worked with the park before on land acquisitions.
“In 2011 we helped the NPS add 26,000 acres to the park,” said Simonelli of the purchase of the Hatch Ranch.
With the latest addition to the park, TCF has helped the park service increase the size of Petrified Forest National Park by about 30 percent.
The Conservation Fund will continue to work with the National Park Service to identify willing sellers of priority lands within the park boundary.
“Petrified Forest National Park is an incomparable place that should be on every American’s bucket list because it provides a unique glimpse into our nation’s vibrant prehistoric landscapes and cultures,” said Mike Ford, Southwest director for The Conservation Fund.
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By Nick Worth