Magazine article National Parks

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Magazine article National Parks

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Article excerpt

Petrified Forest National Park starts to accentuate the positive.

There is something a little Oz-like about Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park. On Interstate 40, drivers see a nondescript panorama behind signs for the park. But just a few miles in, the landscape turns Technicolor. The strata of the Painted Desert seem to burst with rainbows, and the quartz of millions of pieces of petrified wood-from bitty flecks to giant logs-sparkles in the sunlight.

"We hear it all the time-people are blown away," says Richard Ullmann, chief of interpretation for the park. "If you want to go to one place in the world to see the largest concentration and variety of petrified wood, this is the top of the mountain."

But despite the park's ability to surprise and delight, the experience at Petrified Forest had lost its sheen. For starters, people couldn't enjoy the petrified wood without being reminded, by signage or park rangers, not to take it. There was an exhibit with letters from those who had stolen wood in the past, saying that their lives had since become cursed, and a movie showing the staged arrest of a would-be thief. Upon leaving, visitors were interrogated about whether they had taken anything from the park that day. This tactic continued, even in light of a study that showed most park visitors acted responsibly.

"I think the intent was to play on people's guilt," says Superintendent Brad Traver. "And it was effective. "When we focus too much on theft, we begin to close the park off to the visiting public, not showing off its full range of values and not making people feel welcome." And visitation numbers reflected that. "We needed to take a look in the mirror and see how we could reverse that," he says. "We had to stop saying, 'No,' start saying, 'Yes,' and change the image of the park."

Northeastern Arizona's Petrified Forest was set aside as a national monument in 1906 to protect the petrified wood, which began as logs buried in ancient riverbeds more than 200 million years ago. It was named a national park in 1962. But over the years, it became largely a drive-through attraction. Some areas were off-limits to the public, and the feeling that the park was under "lockdown," in the words of one park employee, prevented visitors from lingering and exploring. …

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