Bill Parker, the paleontologist at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, was a victim of the government shutdown just as he was on the cusp of realizing a professional dream.
Parker waited years to receive a grant that allowed him to assemble a team of workers for a thorough study of the park, which was to begin this month. Now the political impasse in Washington has indefinitely delayed their exploration of sites containing 225-million-year-old fossils of phytosaurs — 18-foot crocodile-like creatures that ate dinosaurs — and other flora and fauna from the Late Triassic period. Instead, as Congress battles over spending and Obamacare, Parker is furloughed at one of the most important junctures of his professional career.
Bill Reitze, an archaeologist and temporary park employee, is thrilled that additions to the park have doubled its size in the last two years. He needs more staff to explore the remains of ancient human settlements scattered throughout the new acquisitions, but is instead out of work.
Workers on digs have found artifacts dating back 13,000 years, including Clovis points, within the original park boundaries. Even before the shutdown, his budget was so tight that when he brought his Silverado truck in from the field caked with red clay he could not clean it. The sequester and other budget cuts mean no more car wash on site for park service vehicles, and no petty cash — not even quarters — for the car wash in the nearby town of Holbroke. Reitze is not even a full-time, salaried employee; Parker is the only full-time professional on staff. Everyone else is on temporary status or seasonal.
The shutdown's cutoff of already scarce resources for the National Park Service system underscores the ongoing problem of having the agency's work underfunded or unfunded. Places under the radar, such as the Petrified Forest, could fall entirely from view if Americans don't speak out more forcefully about Congress' irresponsible management of the federal budget.
The Petrified Forest is often perceived — even within the Park Service — as a place scattered with picked-over pieces of the 225 million-year-old trunks and chunks of trees that grew there when it was a river-rich land. Over eons, minerals replaced the organic material in the wood, creating an astonishing variety of colors and stone so hard that it takes diamonds to polish it.
Beyond its most obvious feature, the spectacular petrified trees, the Petrified Forest is a phenomenally complex park that recently added 93,000 acres. It encompasses an incredible weave of narrative threads: ancient settlements that chronicle humanity's transition from hunter gatherers to farmers; thousands of petroglyphs (prehistoric art etched on rock faces); fossils of phytosaurs, other animals and plants from the Late Triassic; and, of course, the land — the Badlands, the Painted Desert and one of the largest intact grasslands in the U.S.
Clearly a haven for scientists, the park attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually who arrive in cars, on motorcycles and in campers. Many are tracking the historic Route 66. Tourists who think they'll just swing by on the way to or back from the Grand Canyon find they want to spend days, not hours. Every person we interviewed who had already seen the Grand Canyon said they found the Petrified Forest National Park much more accessible. It has many trails one mile or less that nearly any age group can walk and many that accommodate wheelchairs.
America's "Best Idea" as many have described our national park system, is dying from a thousand cuts thanks to the sequester, budget cuts and the recent shutdown furloughs. If the national parks are an emblem of all that makes this country so special and amazing, then we need to be especially attentive to their decline.
Scores of foreigners — from Britain, Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, Australia and many other countries — come to our national parks because there is nothing quite like them in the world.
It's time for Americans to rekindle an equal measure of awe for their national parks. The only way to make that happen: insist Congress does its job.
Mary Collins is an associate professor of narrative nonfiction at Central Connecticut State University. Susan McElhinney is a former Newsweek photographer and current photo editor at the National Wildlife Federation's Ranger Rick Magazine. They recently served as artists-in-residence at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.