Petrified Forest Expansion on Hold

Petrified Forest National Park – AMBY: Truck rumbles.

Mike Fitzgerald takes pride showing off the rock art on his property.

FITZGERALD: There's enough right here on this ranch my ranch right here to make two national parks

Fitzgerald's land is adjacent to the Petrified Forest National Park. The tall and lanky rancher takes me on a tour of his property pointing out petroglyphs, dinosaur bones, petrified wood and wildlife

Is that elk or deer? No, it's antelope. There's quite a few antelope out here. Oh wow!

Driving across the roadless land the truck rattles over the scrub and tumbleweed. The desert grass has grown tall since Fitzgerald sold most of his cattle. He has given up on the ranching business.

FITZGERALD: Unfortunately like many ranchers I'm not invested in anything but ranching. I don't have any other means of income. All my eggs are in one basket.

Fitzgerald says he could sell his dinosaur bones to a collector. But instead he's relying on Congress to find a way to buy his property. He testified in Washington a few years ago and convinced them to take all 60 square miles of his land in the expansion.

FITZGERALD: If they don't follow thru with what they committed to and I have to sell I'm forced to sell in future years, the end result will be this land will be subdivided instead of made into a national park and that would be very tragic.

In 2004 Congress authorized the expansion of the Petrified Forest that would preserve more than a hundred-thousand acres rich with fossils, rock art and American Indian gravesites. But lawmakers didn't allocate any funds or make plans for a land exchange.

Some of the property owners aren't waiting. A portion of the expansion land has already been cut up like a pie and sold on eBay.

Park Superintendent Lee Baiza says people are buying their piece of the Painted Desert -- sight unseen.

BAIZA: It really puts us in a difficult situation to deal with individuals who have purchased property and want access from the park and realize that there are no roads, no utilities there really isn't any infrastructure to support these parcels.

Baiza says two years ago one section of land had only nine property owners; today, it has more than a hundred. Baiza says this will complicate matters for the park when it comes time to expand.

Petrified Forest paleontologist Bill Parker is sort of the Indiana Jones of the South West, minus the whip and the hat. Parker says he fears the new landowners will take the treasures that belong in a museum.

PARKER: The next really important find could be a hundred feet away but there's a fence blocking you. I mean it sounds corny and clich but the national parks are really these great scientific laboratories. The fossils here are protected, anything we do collect stays property of the American people so it can't be sold. It's not going to go away

Some of the fossils and artifacts surrounding the park have already been looted and sold.

In addition to the fossils, Parker says it's also important to protect the view. At a popular overlook in the park we're surrounded by mesas, buttes and plateaus that look like they've been painted several shades of blue, red and green.

Jim and Carol are visiting from Pittsburgh. Parker approaches them as they climb out of their rental car to take a picture.

PARKER: Would you be surprised if we told you that a lot of what you're seeing right here isn't in the national park? Really? A lot of it is private land

Parker explains the landowners could build cell towers and homes there.

CAROL and JIM: It would be tragic to have houses out there. It's been around for 225 million years. What right do we have to interfere with that?

Although Parker's anxious to protect the expansion land, he realizes it could take a long time.

PARKER: The last expansion took 32 years to acquire all the land so it's a time consuming process we know that but obviously we want to do everything we can to make it happen as smoothly and as quickly as we can.

Rancher Bill Jeffers has about 20 acres set aside for the park. He says coming up with the millions of dollars needed to buy the land is a slow process. And property values continue to climb.

JEFFERS: This delay is costing taxpayers and the government and if they continue to delay it no telling what it might cost later on. An acre of land that might be worth $100 to $200 a year ago today is probably selling on eBay or private treaty anywhere from $600 to $1,000.

Jeffers says Washington has been lax about committing money to the project. Congressman Rick Renzi, who helped push the expansion act through Congress, says he understands the urgency to protect the fossils, artifacts and other archaeological resources as soon as possible.

RENZI: Right now we're dependent on the private property owners to provide the security for these national treasures. It's a matter of the Congress, the representatives, the Senate and the President making that a priority for their spending. You've got so many different competing priorities for American dollars if it's not made a priority we'll never protect those treasures.

Legislators are left with two options: exchanging government land for private land or appropriating money to purchase the property. Now that the Democrats have taken control of Congress, Renzi is more optimistic that money could be set aside as soon as 2008.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.