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A View From The Overlook: The Petrified Wood Olympics

Dazzling as they might be, taking petrified wood from Petrified Forest National Park carries a hefty price if you're caught. Kurt Repanshek photos.

Crimes involving national park resources tend to be as exotic and interesting as the parks themselves, running the gamut from animal to vegetable to mineral.

There is the illegal bear parts market for example. Almost all of a poached bear, including the bones, is useful in Asian traditional medicine or folk culture. The contents of a bear gall bladder is particularly useful in treating various ailments, according to traditionalists. Among Korean traditionalists, bear paw soup is a favored (and spectacularly expensive) delicacy to be served at landmark banquets honoring a college graduation or other landmark event. There are not many bears left in Asia, but there are quite a few in Shenandoah, Great Smoky and other parks, leading to a classic, if illegal Adam Smith solution.

On the vegetable side, a persistent belief in the power of ginseng, the root of which is believed to restore male vigor, has led to that plant’s near extinction in Asia...and caused ginseng “hunters” to trespass into national parks in search of the elusive root. Fortunately for ginseng, rangers have a potent ally in the form of Viagra and other chemicals that really do work, thus reducing the demand for ginseng, elk antlers, and dried tiger penis.

Then there is our own fixation on Galax, a plant that is used in high-end floral arrangements, and is found in Southeastern national parks, free of charge, (but not if the rangers catch you!)

We must not forget the horticulturalists who seek to add a plant to the park inventory; the marijuana cultivators, who cause no end of environmental damage to national park units in their ceaseless quest to meet America’s demand for dope. Nor should we overlook the “relic hunters,” the bane of NPS battlefield or archeological parks, who arrive on moonless nights to dig for buttons, bullets or prehistoric pottery, thus taking history and prehistory out of context for their own selfish ends.

A Reason For The Antiquities Act

The looting of archeological sites on federal land in the Southwest led to the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906, a far-reaching statute that allowed the president to set aside federal land for the preservation of archaeological “antiquities” and “other scientific purposes” (and whose broad interpretation continues to spread terror among Greedhead reactionaries to this very day).

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That yellow is not gold, but the fine for thievery in Petrified Forest National Park might make it seem like gold. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Among many areas set aside under the Antiquities Act was an enormous surface deposit of petrified wood and other fossils, as well as archeological remains, in northern Arizona in 1906. The petrified wood was scattered about in sizes ranging from nearly intact logs a meter thick and 30 meters long to a billion pocket sized chips and everything in between. The “wood” was beautiful: all colors of the spectrum and no two pieces alike. It was tempting: Indeed, John Muir, one of the promotors of Petrified Forest National Monument (later redesignated a national park), had acquired some petrified wood “specimens” as well as some prehistoric Indian pots, presumably before the monument was established. (His tomboy daughter, Helen, drove the stagecoach that took early visitors around the monument.)

After John Muir departed, it fell to a long line of “Custodians “and later park rangers to keep folks from hauling off Petrified Forest to decorate every mantelpiece in America. I joined that long line as my first permanent assignment with the National Park Service.

Petrified Forest National Monument had been promoted to "national park" status and adventurous visitors no longer arrived by the Santa Fe Railroad that still bisected the park, and the historic little railroad hotel had burned down. The park was strictly day use, with no camping, and the gates were locked at sundown. The sundown patrol was one of the perks of the job, with ARIZONA HIGHWAYS caliber sunsets almost always guaranteed.

“Can’t we stay to watch the sunset?” was a frequent request of latecomers. The answer was always a sympathetic “No.” Occasionally, a taxpayer would ask, “Why not?" The truth was that was they would be locked in.

However, a resourceful ranger always has more than one truth on hand. I would put on my most earnest ranger face and deadpan: “Petrified Forest is a partial sunset national park. To get a full sunset national park, you have to go to Grand Canyon.” This was also true.

All That Glitters Could Be Rock

The main park resource was of course, the glittering, multi-colored chips and slabs of petrified wood and we did our level best to retain them. Taxpayers entering the park were asked if they “had any rocks or minerals with them." (You would be amazed at how many Americans travel with their favorite rocks or minerals). If they answered in the affirmative, the rocks would be placed in a bag and the bag sealed and returned to them with the injunction not to open it while in the park.

Therefore, any rocks or petrified wood found outside the bag could and would be used as evidence against them. In order to search a car for petrified wood, one needed “probable cause.” As Associate Justice William O. Douglas once famously observed, “There is no such crime as 'Suspicion.'”

No particular race, age, gender or ethnic group is predisposed to stealing petrified wood. A witness to the theft supplied our “probable cause.” Either an observant taxpayer (rarely), or by an expert witness, a park ranger. A ranger in the Rainbow Forest District office observed Rainbow Forest with a spotter scope. There were foot and horse patrols in popular wood-theft areas to deter the light-fingered.

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So many colors, so much temptation. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Then there was the “eye in the sky.” A ranger would sit in a foxhole atop a mud butte beside Crystal Forest with a radio and binoculars. He would radio the color, make and license plate of any car whose owners did not drop the attractive piece of wood they were handling.

The hiding places were usually not particularly ingenious; the spare tire well, the air cleaner, the dirty diaper pail (We developed a special tool for that).

There was also one hiding place that must have seemed discovery proof to the perpetrator. “Surely the ranger will not check beneath my wife’s skirt!” the petrified wood pirate would think in a burst of inspiration.

Little did they know!

The wood bandits would drive up to the exit window, smiling confidently at the polite ranger. The ranger would ask if they had any petrified wood. They would say “No.” The ranger would engage them in conversation. During the conversation, he would ask them two more times if they had petrified wood. (Very much like St. Peter denying knowing Jesus). Again the answer would be “No."

Then the ranger would smile ingratiatingly and say, “Then you won’t mind if I take a quick look through your car?”

Strange thing about human psychology; people always say “Sure, go right ahead!” even when they have 40 keys of heroin and a dead body hidden under a blanket in the trunk.

The ranger would approach the nervously smiling spouse on the passenger’s side. The ranger would say, apologizing for the inconvenience, “Federal regulations require that you stand by that fence post while I search the car, Ma’am.” (There is no such federal regulation, but never mind; much of law enforcement is bluff.)

It Should Be An Olympic Event!

The smile would fade. As the size of petrified wood chunks that can be hidden under a seated wife’s skirt are limited only by the size of the wife, the temptation is to go for big pieces. The spouse would be faced with the challenge of transporting a 20-25-pound rock clutched between her thighs for a distance of 30 feet in a casual, nonchalant manner.

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If nabbed with a piece of petrified wood taken from within the park, your face might be as red as this chunk. Kurt Repanshek photo.

If it’s not an Olympic event, it should be. In most cases, there would be a burst of tears and heartfelt confession and I would grant absolution by writing them a citation.

But sometimes -- rarely, but sometimes -- you would have a lady who was a competitor, possibly a former high school or college athlete. “I can do this!”

She would mentally psych herself Resolutely, she would heave her legs out of the car, hoist herself to an upright position and start a Frankenstein lurch toward the fence post.

Hard to do, neighbors.

Inevitably, there would be a satisfying crash of falling rock and shamefaced admission of guilt and I would start writing the citation, but not without respect for an undaunted opponent!

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PJ's account of the heroic efforts of some visitors to avoid a citation reminded me of a story told by a colleague in YELL many years ago.

He encountered a man feeding a sandwich to a bear along the roadside (I said this was long ago . . . ). The bear was slobbering and chewing all over the side of the sandwich when my friend approached and asked, "Sir, you realize feeding the bears is a no-no?" (or something to that effect)

The man replied, "I'm not feeding the bear. This is my lunch." Whereupon he took a big bite out of the slobbery side of the sandwich. My fellow ranger said he just couldn't bring himself to write the ticket. Also had trouble eating lunch a while later.

As mentioned before, there is a way to enjoy sunset in Petrified Forest NP.

You have to apply for a backcountry permit and carry your sleeping pad and bag at least one mile from the road an out of sight from the trailhead. This is allowed only in parts of the park that are away from the petrified wood areas, I can personally recommend the Puerco Rigde in the south eastern corner of the park. And it is a pretty exclusive way to enjoy the park, only about 300 people a year spend the night in the park's backcountry.

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