Feb 142014

By Tammy Gray
Some parts of the newly acquired land within Petrified Forest National Park will be open to the public this spring, the Navajo County Board of Supervisors learned on Tuesday.
Park Superintendent Brad Traver explained that an area dubbed the Red Basin would be accessible to visitors soon. The area contains not only rainbow petrified wood for which the park is famous, but also formations that hold fossilized clam shells. Traver told the board that an ancient river once flowed through the area, and the clamshells are part of what was once a riverbed.
Another newly acquired area to the west of the north entrance is also scheduled to open soon, according to Traver. Known as the Devil’s Playground, it will be a special permit area, meaning that visitors will need to obtain permission before entering. The area is currently difficult to access since it is a long way from the park’s main road, but Traver told the board that the park is working to create another access point. He explained that park officials have been working in conjunction with Navajo County Public Works Director Homero Vela to acquire an easement from a private landowner that will allow the park to open a direct road to the area. If the effort is successful, the area will have its own access gate and parking area.
Other new sections to the west of the park are not scheduled to be opened to the public. Traver told the board that the sections of land the park has acquired are bordered by private property and there is no practical way to offer public access to those lands at this time. In addition, other properties near the northeast end of the park belong to the State of Arizona and cannot currently be opened to the public. According to Traver, the National Park Service is negotiating a use agreement with the state to try to make the land accessible to visitors.
In addition to the expansion, Traver told the board that the park had a successful field season in 2013, with researchers uncovering a phytosaur skull and seven stone axe heads, as well as identifying previously undiscovered basketmaker-era ruins dating from 500 to 1,000 A.D.
The number of visitors was also promising in 2013, according to Traver. He explained that numbers were high and would likely have passed 700,000, except for the federal government shutdown last fall and construction at the bridge near the entrance, both of which negatively affected the total number of park visitors.
“It would have been an important milestone,” Traver said. “We haven’t been at that level since ’97.”