Petrified Forest National Park proposed to expand its boundaries east and west along the south side of the Puerco escarpment in 1993. The park had grown in the past to the north, primarily for the purpose of reaching Route 66, when it became the primary highway through the area during the Depression. The 1993 proposal was for the purpose of protecting more paleontological and archeological resources.
Paleontological resources are known to be found in the badlands and the sides of mesas along the east–west trending Puerco escarpment. Archeological sites are known to be found in the higher areas of grasslands and on mesa tops—rock art is known to be found in the boulders cascading from the edges of mesas along the same escarpments.
By 2004, the proposed expansion took its final shape at 125,000 acres in the Petrified Forest Expansion Act and was passed by Congress and signed by the President. The law specifically requires that land and grazing rights be acquired only from willing sellers, that the National Park Service negotiate management of State Trust lands inside the new boundary with the State of Arizona in lieu of an opportunity to acquire the lands, and that the lands inside the new boundary managed by the BLM be transferred to NPS management. No new appropriation for the purpose of land acquisition was made.
In 2007, approximately 15,200 acres of BLM lands inside the new park boundary were transferred to Petrified Forest National Park. Two existing grazing leases were also transferred to NPS management since the holders did not elect to relinquish them. Around half those lands are in a contiguous chunk west of Pinta and north of the BNSF Railway—the rest are in scattered pieces.
In 2011, with the help of The Conservation Fund, the park purchased the Hatch Ranch, historically known as the Paulsell Ranch for the family who built the structures and ranched the land most of the 20th century. The ranch is one of the two big privately held ranches inside the new park boundary and, at 26,000 acres, made a big jump in the size of the park, overnight. The Hatch family did agree to cease grazing at the time of the purchase.
In 2013, again with the help of The Conservation Fund as well as the National Parks Conservation Association, the park purchased the McCauley Ranch at 4265 acres. This ranch had not been recently grazed so grazing rights were not an issue.
These lands are located between the pre-2004 park boundary and the Paulsell Ranch, which made them important for access between the two federally owned areas.
The federal funds to purchase these private lands have come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is a national Fund supplied by oil and gas lease royalties and made available for land conservation purposes at federal, state, and local levels across the country. Funds are distributed competitively. Petrified Forest has competed successfully three times, so far.
The Paulsell Ranch lands are in checkerboard pattern with State Trust lands—26,000 acres of private (now federal) lands and 23,000 acres of Trust lands alternating square mile by square mile in the pattern of a checkerboard. The Paulsell and Hatch families held grazing permits with the State of Arizona Land Department to graze the Trust lands in the area.
In 2014, prior to the expiration of the Hatch family’s grazing lease, it was assigned to Petrified Forest, then renewed for another 10 years at a non-grazing rate.
While the State lands are still owned by the State, this (non)grazing permit provides the legal right for park personnel to cross State lands, and maintain the roads, fences, and water storage tanks. With that legal access, paleontologists, archeologists, and wildlife biologists can get permits from the State to monitor resources and conduct protection activities on State lands.
The grazing permit, however, does not permit public recreational access across these State lands. Public access is a point of continuing discussion with the Arizona State Land Department.
The lands acquired from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2007 included the mineral estate. Lands purchased from private owners—specifically the 30,000 acres purchased from the Hatch and McCauley families—did not include mineral rights.
By 2011 and 2013, when these purchases were underway, the minerals below these lands were either held by others and unavailable or valued more highly by the sellers than the buyers. Therefore, only the surface estate was purchased and others retain ownership of the minerals below.
According to the 1872 mining law, Petrified Forest National Park must provide reasonable access to the minerals below these new park lands, should such access be requested. Legal precedent has held that reasonable access must be compliant with the National Environmental Policy Act.
So, as of the middle of 2015, the park has added approximately 45,000 acres of new federal land since 2007 and has leased another 23,000 acres of State Trust land for non-public park uses.
Together, that means approximately 54% of the targeted lands in the Petrified Forest Expansion Act are available for non-public park uses. In 2014, over 14,000 acres of these new lands were opened for public use.
Efforts are underway to permit public access to the 23,000 acres of Trust lands, which would make nearly 50,000 additional acres of combined federal and Trust lands available for public use. Discussions also are underway with other willing private sellers inside the new boundary—more purchases are expected soon.