Podcast Episodes

How National Parks Stop Thieves

If you listened to The Curse of the Petrified Forest, our episode on the strange happenings surrounding people who stole rocks from Petrified Forest National Park, you know that the park faced a major identity crisis – people thought all the petrified wood was gone. It isn’t, of course, it’s pretty much all still there – but theft of small stones is still a problem for the park, just as theft and vandalization are problems throughout the National Parks System. On this episode, we take a look at theft in another Arizona park, and how authorities are using old-fashioned detective work as well as 21st-century technology to catch would-be cactus thieves.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.

Saguaro National Park – NPS website

Theft Deterrence for an Arizona Icon – New York Times article on the tagging of the saguaro cacti

Video: Cactus thieves and fossil robbers are taking treasures from the national parks – PBS News Hour

Two men sentenced for theft of “music wood” timber in Olympic National Park – NPS Investigative Services Press Release

Busting Cactus Smugglers in the American West – The full story of Yevgeny Safronov in The Atlantic

Transcript

The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

This year, L.L.Bean is joining up with the National Park Foundation, the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, to help you find your happy place – in an amazing system of more than 400 national parks, including historic and cultural sites, monuments, preserves, lakeshores, and seashores that dot the American landscape, many of which you’ll find just a short trip from home. L.L.Bean is proud to be an official partner of the National Park Foundation. Discover your perfect day in a park at findyourpark.com.

In 2013, a man living on the border of Olympic National Park heard an unmistakable buzzing sound coming from the direction of the park late in the evening. He looked out his window and spotted three headlamps. Tree poachers were stealing one of our most valuable resources.

Tree theft is, in fact, often considered the new Ivory. As old-growth wood becomes more and more rare, its value increases. Somewhere between 15 to 30 percent of the global timber trade is conducted through the black market and linked to organized crime.

In this case, Olympic rangers arrived on the scene to find a bigleaf maple had been removed from the protected lands. Mature bigleaf maple is sought after as “tonewood” for use in guitars and other stringed instruments. It’s prized in part because of its “flame” or “quilted” fibers, which provides a shimmering effect when cut on the bias.

The next night, rangers caught Michael D. Welches, age 63, and two accomplices in the act. They had arrived with muffled chainsaws, planning to cut another tree. The value of the timber?  $8,766. Welches and his accomplices all served prison time for theft.

If you listened to The Curse of the Petrified Forest, our episode on the strange happenings surrounding people who stole rocks from Petrified Forest National Park, you know that the park faced a major identity crisis – people thought all the petrified wood was gone. It isn’t, of course, it’s pretty much all still there – but theft of small stones is still a problem for the park, just as theft and vandalization are problems throughout the National Parks System. On this episode, we take a look at theft in another Arizona park, and how authorities are using old-fashioned detective work as well as 21st-century technology to catch would-be cactus thieves.

65-year-old Yevgeny Safronov has collected cacti since the 1980s. In his Russian greenhouse, he keeps over 2,000 plants – most of which he has hunted. Almost yearly, he has lead hunting expeditions to the west, where cacti pepper the desert climates of portions of south and central America, and of course, the American Southwest.

He wasn’t quiet about it either. He’d blog in detail about the locations of the cacti, with photos of him in his safari vest, shirtless, with a gold chain and dark chest hair.

In 2015, authorities spotted a website advertising a trip to the U.S. organized by Igor Drab. It was to be a tour of national parks across the Southwest. Drab had been flagged as a potential cactus thief, and the investigators alerted a slew of wildland protection bureaus, including the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

Safronov, Drab, and three other tourists landed in Los Angeles – after being watched for at least six months by a team of federal agencies. They breezed through customs, rented a Chevy Tahoe, and headed towards Arizona – with the US Fish and Wildlife service on their tail. They checked into a KOA campground where they stayed in a cabin for the night, then drove a dirt road into the desert.

Safranov had a detailed booklet of GPS locations of plants he wanted to visit, culled together from previous trips. Agents witnessed the tourists steal the seed pod from a saguaro cactus. It was a criminal theft to be sure, but a saguaro produces more than a hundred thousand of seed pods a year. Investigators needed more evidence.

A few days later, a National Park Service ranger at Big Bend National Park spotted the white Tahoe in a campsite. The undercover ranger pitched a stakeout tent nearby. He struck up a conversation with one of the traverls as he was photographing the night sky. Once they had all turned in for the night, the ranger hid a GPS tracking device on the Tahoe.

The next day, the ranger followed the signal at a distance, spying on them as they drove to a remote area through a telephoto lens. When they got out, they rummaged around for 45 minutes, but the ranger couldn’t get a clear view. After they pulled away, he found that cuttings had been taken from a prickly pear cactus. A pad cutting from a prickly pear will sprout more pads once planted.

The party returned to camp. So did the ranger. He watched as the group sorted items in a plastic bag on their picnic table, and inventoried them in a notebook. Safronov was trying to push the pad of a prickly pear into a used Uncle Ben’s rice box from their dinner.

In the morning, the campers left. Only to be spotted again six days later and 900 miles away in Arches National Park, where two more undercover agents witnessed them removing a small plant.

When the tourists returned to LAX, Fish and Wildlife agents were there to open their checked luggage. They found seeds stuffed into socks, and whole cacti hidden in bags of jalapeño pepper – all told nearly 70 plants, cuttings, and seeds.

Meanwhile, a National Park Service ranger apprehended Safranov on the jetway, and through a translator, he admitted to having cacti in his luggage. He showed the ranger his notebook, pointing to the locations where he removed all of the individual specimens.

Safronov took full responsibility for all the thefts, and plead guilty in court. The judge ordered him to pay a fine of just $525.

There are 1,480 species of cacti, most of which are native to the US. 31 percent are threatened by many factors, like loss of habitat from urban sprawl and livestock grazing. But believe it or not, the primary threat is the black market. A 15-year-old study estimated that, in a three-year period, thieves illegally plucked 100,000 cacti from Texas alone. Most were smuggled into Mexico, and this was before the insurgance of the internet, which massively broadened black market sale opportunities.

It should go without saying that in our country it’s illegal to take plants from federal land. One of the most prized plants of the American Southwest is it’s most threatened. At $200 a foot, a lot of people are willing to pay a pretty penny for a statuesque saguaro cactus, with it’s arms pointed at the sky, to sit in their front lawn. Not many are willing to wait the 75 years it takes for them to sprout arms.  It takes a full ten years for a saguaro to grow its first inch. A saguaro is considered an adult when it reaches 125 years, and the average life span is 150 to 175 years. They can weigh 6 tons – about as much as a Ford F250 Super Duty – and they can reach the height of a five-story building.

So, not surprisingly, the wild saguaro in Saguaro National Park and the surrounding areas are ripe targets for poaching.

Saguaro cacti would be difficult to grow, even if it didn’t take so long. Because of their size and weight, thieves usually target plants that are around forty years old and five to seven feet in height. At that age and size, they fetch a considerable profit, yet can still fit on the back of a pickup truck.

Theft of plants from public lands in Arizona has been rampant for decades. The state estimated back in 1980 that 250,000 had been illegally pillaged in the previous year alone. But they’re also stolen from gardening centers and homes.

In January 2007, a Tuscon resident alerted Saguaro National Park that 17 saguaros had been stashed along a road at the park’s border. Plant poachers will often dig up the plants one night, only to return to haul them away. They may only be able to carry one saguaro per trip depending on its size.

Park Rangers determined that two of the cacti had come from the national park’s property, and the rest had come from county land. They surveyed the area and waited for the thieves to return. Gregory James McKee and Joseph Tillman were arrested and charged for violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits trafficking in plants and animals collected in violation of any law.

They plead guilty, and Tillman was sentenced to eight months in federal prison, while McKee was sentenced to six months of home confinement and community service. Tillman’s was one of the longest sentences ever for cactus-smuggling.

Cactus thieves are brazen. One group of smugglers was caught along a park road with a trailer full of eight saguaro in broad daylight.

Now, rangers at Saguaro National Park are taking a new approach to stop theft – deterrence. Many cacti in the park have been embedded with Microchip IDs, similar to those used to track lost pets.

The chips don’t broadcast a signal – they can’t alert rangers of a theft. But they can scan plants for sale with a specialized reader for the chip, which may make nurseries more skeptical of the plants they buy.

Officials said they have spent about $3,000 to implant chips in 1,000 saguaros along areas most accessible to thieves. It’s a small fraction of the 1.9 million saguaros in the park, but rangers hope that the chips will weaken the illegal market and strike fear in smugglers of getting caught with a chipped cactus.

Thieves are a threat to national parks across the country. Fossils, orchids, endangered animals, artifacts like arrowheads and other relics from indigenous people are all protected. Even pulling the bark off a tree can land you in a federal court. It’s important for all of us who visit public lands to practice leave no trace principles. Leave only footprints, take only memories. 

Saguaro National Park surrounds the modern city of Tucson. You can see these enormous cacti, silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunset.  There are two districts, on either side of Tucson, each with their own visitor center that provides restrooms, water fountains, maps, hiking trails, and a driving loop.

There are over 150 miles of designated trails. The only campsites require a hike into backcountry wilderness in the East District. There is no form of running water. No vehicle camping is available, and cell service is virtually non-existent.

The park ranges in elevation from 3000 feet up to 8,000 feet, so temperatures can fluctuate, but it can get especially hot in the summer, over 105 degrees in the shade. Make sure to bring and drink plenty of water. Avoid the heat of the day by hiking before 10am and after 4pm. Both sunrises and sunsets can be glorious, with the tall, armed cacti shilouetted in the sun’s glow.   

For a special treat – the saguaro’s beautiful white, waxy flower – the state flower of Arizona – blooms late May through July.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

Gateway to Arizona

If there’s one place in our travels that has seemed a nearly hidden gem — a place where hardly anyone goes, yet is full of incredible beauty — it’s the confluence of the northern tip of Grand Canyon National Park, where miles of the Colorado River are protected before they enter the canyon, and the southern tip of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s a serene place called Lee’s Ferry, where the Colorado gently winds through vermillion cliffs. Rafters hit the first rapid here to begin the 88-mile journey to Phantom Ranch, the historic camping oasis nestled nearly a mile below the rim of the Grand Canyon. Wild horses roam the hills and can be spotted frolicking in the riverbed.

But alongside the glorious beauty of the red rock set against the dark river and blue skies, long before it was the launching point for Grand Canyon rafters, this historic place was the gateway to Arizona. It’s the only place along the river for 700 miles that the riverbanks are directly accessible by land, making it an ideal crossing point, and today, the only place where you can get down into the deep cuts of the Colorado without hiking in.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Lee’s Ferry, part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area – NPS Website

Grand Canyon National Park – NPS Website

Wilderness River Adventures – Grand Canyon Rafting Guide


Transcript

If there’s one place in our travels that has seemed a nearly hidden gem — a place where hardly anyone goes, yet is full of incredible beauty — it’s the confluence of thr northern tip of Grand Canyon National Park, where miles of the Colorado River are protected before they enter the canyon, and the southern tip of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s a serene place called Lee’s Ferry, where the Colorado gently winds through vermillion cliffs. Rafters hit the first rapid here to begin the 88-mile journey to Phantom Ranch, the historic camping oasis nestled nearly a mile below the rim of the Grand Canyon. Wild horses roam the hills and can be spotted frolicking in the riverbed.

But alongside the glorious beauty of the red rock set against the dark river and blue skies, long before it was the launching point for Grand Canyon rafters this historic place was the gateway to Arizona. It’s the only place along the river for 700 miles that the riverbanks are directly accessible by land, making it an ideal crossing point, and today, the only place where you can get down into the deep cuts of the Colorado without hiking in.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Lee’s Ferry, part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

______

Franciscan’s were the first Europeans to view the future Lee’s Ferry in October 1776, though the first human inhabitants were the Ancestral Puebloans, whose history in the area dates back to at least 1125 A.D. The area’s history as a river crossing really begins when Mormon explorer and missionary Jacob Hamblin crossed the river for the first time in 1858. Hamblin was attempting to warn Navajos to stop raiding Utah. His men built a raft that could carry 15 men, their supplies, and horses across the Colorado.

Hamblin realized that the site could be the gateway to Mormon pioneering into Arizona, and convinced Mormon church president Brigham Young to establish a permanent crossing. Young agreed, and chose John D. Lee to build and run it.

Lee was trying to lay low, after playing a key role in perpetrating the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre, where 120 pioneers from Arkansas were slaughtered by Mormons. Lee falsely accepted their surrender leading them to their death. In an attempt to make it look like an Indian attack, all but the very youngest were killed so that no one would talk. Federal authorities were seeking Lee’s capture, so he and his two wives gladly moved to the site an launched a ferry named the “Colorado” in January of 1873.

Between 1873 and1875, the ferry proved successful, as Mormon migration to Arizona and the southern territories increased, and its popularity grew, Lee wasn’t able to outrun the law anymore. He was captured by authorities in 1874 and eventually executed for his role in the massacre.

The responsibility for the ferry was temporarily turned over to Lee’s oldest wife, Emma. The Mormons continued to develop the site, and built what became known as Lee’s Fort in 1874, serving as a trading post and home to the ferry operators.

After construction of the St. George temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was finished in 1877, many couples from the south made the journey north to consecrate their marriages in the temple. The route became known as the “Honeymoon Trail.” A crossing cost $2 at the time for Mormons, and $3 for other travelers.

The Mormon church chose Warren Johnson to replace Lee as the operator of the ferry. Johnson, however, was entirely unqualified, having no experience in ferries, but Emma Lee helped ensure a smooth transition.

The Navajo people began to frequently utilize the ferry, and Johnson became friendly with them, establishing a positive relationship and trade. He quickly became an expert on river crossings and the Colorado River’s subtleties. His concern for safety led him to require wagons be disassembled to fit on a smaller raft during periods of high water, frustrating many travelers.

In 1876, a party led by Daniel H. Wells, counselor to Brigham Young, wanted to hurriedly cross the river to return to Salt Lake City after visiting the Arizona settlements, but Johnson thought the water too high and turbulent, recommending the wagons be disassembled and placed aboard the smaller skiff. Wells was impatient and refused. His party began crossing on the larger boat, and the first two trips across made it safely, but the river wasn’t so forgiving on the third. Bishop Lorenzo Roundy succumbed to the Colorado’s current, along with a handful of wagons and provisions.

Johnson tried to convince the church to provide for a smaller, easier to manage one-wagon capacity ferry, but was refused. Instead, they provided him with a 47 foot boat. He knew it was a disastrous idea, so he built his own one-wagon ferryboat in the winter of 1886.

The ferry wasn’t entirely a lucrative business for Johnson. He had to do the work of several people, tending to crossings and managing the farm. Some travelers would pay for their crossing with their labor, which he encouraged. He built shacks for their overnight stays. He convinced his brother-in-law, David Brinkerhoff, to be his partner, and had him take over the farm so he could focus on the ferry.

Johnson, like Lee, had two wives. Polygamy was falling out of favor with the Mormons, as it was constantly a point of friction between the church and the government, and Johnson knew it. The church produced a manifesto in 1890 that effectively ended their defense of the practice. Not wanting to give up one of his two wives and their families, he left the ferry in 1896, settling in Wyoming where he lived the final years of his life paralyzed after he broke his spine in a wagon accident.

In the late 1800’s, flecks of gold were spotted in the sands near the ferry, leading to a period of prospecting that rarely produced enough gold to exceed expenses.

In 1899, Robert B. Stanton built a mile-and-a-half long road along the river above the ferry and installed a dredge to extract gold, but by 1901, Stanton abandoned the operation.

Around the same time, Charles H. Spencer hoped to use high-pressure hoses to remove the gold from around Lee’s Ferry. He had a San Fransisco company build him a steamboat, the “Charles H. Spencer,” to transport coal along the river as fuel for his equipment. It was 92 feet long, 25 feet across and had a draft of 18 to 20 inches with a boiler powered 12-foot stern paddle. The parts were manufactured in San Francisco and shipped by rail to Utah, where they were conveyed by ox-cart to the mouth of Warm Creek, where the boat was assembled. When the boat arrived, it was clear that it didn’t have the power to face the Colorado river. It was permanently docked, then sank during a flood. The structure was stripped of its lumber, and its boiler remains in the river today. Spencer’s entire operation ended by 1913.

With the emergence of train travel, crossings at Lee’s Ferry slowed drastically in the early 1900s, mostly transporting locals. The LDS church sold the ferry to the Grand Canyon Cattle Company in 1909 and the state of Arizona took it over a year later. By the 20s, it was decided that a bridge would be constructed over Marble Canyon just downriver, which would eventually render the ferry useless. On June 7, 1928, an accident killed three men, including Warren Johnson’s grandson Adolph, and the ferry closed for good, even before the bridge was finished.

In the1930s and 1940s, as sport fishing became popular, the site saw a resurgence as a recreation destination, and in 1972, Lee’s Ferry joined the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

_____

Lee’s Ferry is about 45 Miles from Page, Arizona, a haven for outdoor travel. From Page, you can visit many parts of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, and surrounding sites, including the famous Horseshoe Bend overlook, the waving rock of Antelope Canyon, the historic Navajo bridge, and of course, Lee’s Ferry.

Lee’s Ferry is one of the few places you can park a car for multi-day hiking and rafting trips, and there’s a small first-come, first served campground with water and a dump station, but no electricity. There are plenty of trails to explore, as well as rock formations, and some of the historic mormon structures.

Rafting trips that set in at Lee’s Ferry can go for as long as 6 or 7 days, traveling 188 miles to Whitmore Wash. The trips include world-class whitewater and serene stretches of river winding through the heart of Grand Canyon National Park. On some of the longest trips, after Lava Falls rapid, a helicopter takes you over the rim to a ranch for a shower and lunch before your return flight to your car.

Marble Canyon is at the entrance to the Lee’s Ferry Site, where you can cross the historic Navajo bridge, and just might catch one of the California Condors hanging out on the superstructure. There’s lodging and fuel nearby.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

 

Podcast Episodes

The Curse of the Petrified Forest

In a small section of the painted desert of Arizona, you can find forests of crumbled trees, preserved as stone. Over 200 million years ago, these large conifers were uprooted by floods, then washed down from the highlands and buried by silt. Water seeping through the wood replaced decaying organic material cell by cell with multicolored silica. The land was lifted up by geological upheaval, and erosion began to expose the long-buried, now petrified wood.

In the modern age, the trees have their own stories, having become one of the iconic road trip destinations along Route 66. On this episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast, Petrified Forest National Park and the curse of the Petrified Forest.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Petrified Forest National Park – NPS Website

“Rewriting the Story of Arizona’s Petrified Forest” – azcentral.com

Conscience Letters – badluckhotrocks.com

Legends of America – info on the “curse” of the Petrified Forest


Transcript

In a small section of the painted desert of Arizona, you can find forests of crumbled trees, preserved as stone. Over 200 million years ago, these large conifers were uprooted by floods, then washed down from the highlands and buried by silt. Water seeping through the wood replaced decaying organic material cell by cell with multicolored silica. The land was lifted up by geological upheaval, and erosion began to expose the long-buried, now petrified wood.

They almost look like logs sawn into evenly sized chunks, just days ago. But their age is nothing short of spectacular. To put it into perspective, they had already turned to stone and had returned to the surface when the T-Rex roamed nearby 66 million years ago.

In the modern age, the trees have their own stories, having become one of the iconic road trip destinations along Route 66. On this episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast, Petrified Forest National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.
_____

Between 1910 and 1920, automobile ownership in the united states increased from 500,000 cars to nearly 10 million. The impracticality of the rambling trails across the country began to turn into a numbered road system under the federal highway administration. An Oklahoma real estate agent and coal company owner advocated for a diagonal roadway to run from Chicago to Los Angeles. It would be a boon for the sooner state, ushering motorists away from Kansas City and Denver. Route 66 it was called.

Thousands of unemployed youths were put to work as laborers during the depression to pave the final stretches of the road. 210,000 people traveled it to California to escape the despair of the Dust Bowl, a period of severe dust storms that damaged the ecology and agriculture of the prairies during the 1930s. For them, Route 66 symbolized the “road to opportunity.”

John Steinbeck proclaimed it the “Mother Road” in 1939s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which was then immortalized in the 1940 film.

After World War II, Americans were more mobile than ever before. Servicemen who trained in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas abandoned the harsh winters of Chicago and the Northeast for the warmth of the Southwest and the West.

Route 66 became the quintessential American road trip, taking tourists across the nation to see the ever-changing landscape, including the painted desert scenes of Arizona, which they had only seen in pictures, and Petrified Forest National Park.

People were enamored by the uniqueness of the petrified wood, especially because Route 66 drove right through the park. You could have your top down in the convertible and drive by the massive collections of petrified trees in the park.

Travelers have long carried away pieces of the stone wood as memorabilia. Before it was outlawed, wagon-fulls would be hauled off for sale. When the Petrified Forest became a National Monument in 1906, it had been illegal to remove petrified wood from the park, yet that didn’t entirely stop people.

Many thought no one would notice one little rock missing, and eventually came to realize they made a terrible mistake – because of the Curse of the Petrified Forest.

In the 30s, people began to relate that, after taking a piece of petrified wood from the park, they were stricken with bad luck. From divorce to legal struggles, to car trouble, to medical conditions, and unemployment. Cat attacks to financial losses and even a plane crash.

How did the park find out about these afflictions? People would return the stolen petrified wood, usually via anonymous mail with a confession attached. They felt that bad luck came to possess those who took souvenirs and that their only salvation would come from giving it back.

“My life has been totally destroyed since we’ve been back from vacation. Please put these back so my life can get back to normal! Let me start over again!” said one such letter. The park has received endless accounts over the years from thieves. Notes often requested the wood be returned to the spot it was taken from, with hand-drawn maps describing the location.

“It was a great challenge sneaking it out of the park,” another thief wrote. “Since that time, though, nothing in my life has gone right.”

“Take these miserable rocks and put them back, they have caused pure havoc in my love life. By the time these rocks reach you, things should be back to normal. If not, I give up. Dateless and Desperate.”

“My girlfriend of three years finished with me on the drive home. So here’s your damn wood back.”

“Dear Park Rangers, Here’s your rock back. We never should have taken it. Maybe now the Giants will win a few games next year.”

Unfortunately, returning the rocks after they were taken is not something rangers can do because they are out of “scientific context.” The park is an active research site, and moving rocks undermines the scientific study. When a piece of wood is returned, the park puts it in a rusted metal box at the main office. When the box is full, a ranger takes the so-called conscience rocks to a pile on a service road closed to the public. Rangers have collected over 1200 confession letters dating back to 1935.

By the time the National Monument became a National Park in 1962, the stories of stolen rock had become nationally known. It was commonly thought that a ton of petrified wood a month, 12 tons a year, was being swiped from the park.

So much petrified wood was being stolen, that it was rumored that the park was on it’s way to extinction. Park officials intoduced stringent enforcement procedures. Vehicle inspections were implemented at the entrance and exit gates. Gloomy posters and leaflets warned visitors. Trail closures blocked up-close access to the formations. The film at the visitors’ center touted the 1-ton-a-month number, warning of the fines and damage removing petrified wood would generate.

The park did such a great job at getting the word out about stealing wood, that many people believed there was no reason to go to the park anymore. Most of the wood was already gone. And if you did go, you were admonished and warned at every turn — hardly a positive experience with nature. Going to the diminishing petrified forest was selfish.

The thing is, none of it was true.

Sure, people had taken plenty of pieces of petrified wood over the years, but the decommissioning and removal of Route 66, combined with the expansion of the park to include the painted desert meant that the new park road didn’t weave through roadside formations anymore, so return visitors thought that the petrified wood they remembered peppering the drive was gone. It wasn’t.

And nobody could pinpoint where the myth of losing a ton of wood a month came from. The lasting impression left with visitors was a ranger checking them for wood when exiting the park.

But theft was still an issue, and the park still needed to protect against it. In 2006, a team of Arizona State University psychology researchers observed peoples’ reactions to different kinds of messages. One of the experiments conducted at Petrified Forest National Park had researchers experimenting with the wording on signs meant to stop theft and found that the news that massive amounts of wood were being stolen was the least effective.

The park didn’t make any changes, though, until Superintendent Brad Traver took over. He decided that the focus needed to shift from wood thefts to history and interpretation of the 225-million-year-old historical record of the petrified wood. And he needed to eliminate the perception that the wood was all gone.

The park began photographing popular sites and compared the pictures with photos nearly a century old. Most formations looked identical, right down to individual small pieces of logs.

Instead of admonishing would-be thieves, the park now appeals to visitors’ sense of ownership of the land and its treasures. Long-closed trails have been re-opened, and a new narrative, focused on science and discovery is in place.

Conscience rocks still get mailed in to this day. Most no longer mention a curse, just profound guilt over the theft.

“To whom it may concern,

During my visit to the Petrified Forest, I took the enclosed rock. It was wrong, but I didn’t think one small rock would make a difference.

However, my parents have helped me to understand that it doesn’t matter how small it is, and is still wrong.

Sincerely,

Ryan. (Age 11)”

——

There’s a website called “bad luck hot rocks dot com” where you can see photographs of the conscience letters the park has received over the years. Many are very moving. “Sorry for my father” one short but meaningful one says.

Most people spend up to a full day at the park. Interstate 40 (the old Route 66) drives right through the North End – the painted desert area. It has its own exit, number 311, which you should take if you’re heading westbound, and then drive the 28-mile park road to the south end of the park. You can then take highway 180 to rejoin with I-40 at exit 285. If you’re heading eastbound, reverse the process. There’s no camping available, unless you’re willing to hike at least a mile into the backcountry. Outside the south entrance of the park, two privately owned gift shops allow overnight parking in their parking lots.

The north visitors center has a decently priced counter-service restaurant and fuel station with gas and diesel. Big rigs can easily drive the park road, but may not be able to park at a couple of the pull-outs.

Most sites can be seen just off the road, but a few short trails allow for a more up-close and personal experience. Take lots of water, it’s exposed and usually hot. You have to exit the park by 5pm, so make sure you get there in plenty of time to explore.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

 

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