PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK – This high desert expanse features more than just wood that turned to stone eons ago.
Park Superintendent Brad Traver is quick to explain that the vistas stretching toward the Painted Desert of northern Arizona hold hundreds of million years of history, from fossils of dinosaur ancestors to ancient Native American dwellings.
These days, however, his focus is increasingly on what’s beneath the wind-swept terrain. Petrified Forest National Park and the land around it sit on millions of tons of potash, a potassium-rich mineral used to make fertilizer.
That deposit has mining companies buying land and staking claims nearby, including on 125,000 acres that are part of a plan to more than double the park’s size. Congress approved the expansion in 2004, authorizing the park to purchase land from willing sellers.
The park added the first 26,000 acres in September, but that purchase didn’t include the mineral rights, which are leased to a company hoping to establish a potash mine in the next two to three years.
The mining plans discussed so far involve tunnels rather than open pits, but the prospect of above-ground operations around the park concerns Traver. That includes the potential to disrupt undiscovered archaeological sites with the expanded boundary.
“Surface operations won’t be a good neighbor for a national park,” he said. “The further away (they) can be located, the better for us.”
But the proposed mines could create hundreds of permanent jobs and boost the economy of Holbrook, a city of 5,000 about 25 miles to the west.
“We’re very excited,” Holbrook City Manager Ray Alley said. “This could generate the economy we need and bring in new jobs.”
Traver said he is confident that there’s a way to preserve the park while bringing in jobs. He’s suggested locating buildings and tunnel entrances outside the park boundary to avoid disturbing the surface.
“We’re not feeling as though we’re raining on anyone’s parade by standing up for the expanded boundaries of the park,” he said. “We think that the economic development can still occur without jeopardizing the future of the park.”
So far, one of the three companies planning to mine within the 125,000 acres has said it would follow that suggestion.
Petrified Forest National Park, established as a national monument in 1906 and designated a national park in 1962, was originally 93,500 acres. The 2004 expansion approved by Congress authorized the park to purchase surface and mineral rights.
But the legislation didn’t initially include funds to acquire the land. In addition to the ranch purchased earlier this year, the the Bureau of Land Management has transferred another 15,000 acres.
Meanwhile, three mining companies, Passport Potash, American West Potash and HNZ Potash, have acquired rights, through purchase or lease, to some private ranches in the remaining acreage as well as in areas outside the park’s boundary.
Passport Potash owns the Twin Buttes Ranch, comprised of 28,500 acres inside the eastern edge of the expanded park boundary. In all, the firm has or is in the process of acquiring mineral and surface rights to 121,000 acres within and beyond the park’s boundary.
American West Potash has lease rights to 32,000 acres straddling the park’s eastern boundary, including mineral rights under the 26,000-acre ranch recently purchased by the park.
HNZ Potash owns 74,000 acres southwest of the park’s boundary.
A 2008 Arizona Geological Survey study confirmed historical estimates that 700 million to 2.5 billion tons of potash lies beneath the surface of the Holbrook basin. The old and new boundaries of the park are over approximately 50 percent of these potash deposits, according to the study.
The three companies currently are drilling test holes inside and outside the park to establish the depth and quality of the deposits.
If the findings confirm the estimates, mining could begin in the next two to three years, said Pat Avery, president of American West Potash. The company is hoping to create 300 to 400 full-time jobs, he said.
American West Potash has agreed to locate its surface facilities outside the park boundary with input from park officials.
“Our goal is to site a surface facility that absolutely can’t be seen from the park,” Avery said.
Passport Potash hasn’t decided where to place its surface facilities, said Andrew Bond, a company spokesman.
“Our goal, truly, is to harvest the resources, bring jobs and to make as little impact as possible.”
The company expects to add anywhere from 300 to 700 full-time positions, Bond said.
Alley, the city manager, said the proposed mining jobs are sorely needed. “Holbrook would get the lion’s share of these people,” he said.
Phone messages left with HNZ Potash’s office in Dallas weren’t returned.
Traver said he agrees that the area’s economy could use a boost and is confident that the park and mining companies can coexist.
“It continues to be our hope that the surface and the mineral rights can be separated so the surface can become a park while the subsurface can be mined for potash,” he said.
Anna Consie is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.