Off of a gravel service road, at the Petrified Forest National Park, rests a pile of shame and abandonment that cannot be found on any park map.
The pile is the size of a pickup but is composed of rocks that are actually pieces of petrified wood, according to Ryan Thompson, an author who chronicled the thefts. There are large jagged petrified stumps, polished fragments that display a rainbow of colors, rocks that are so small they vanish among the heap and some pieces that may not even be petrified wood. No matter how different all of these fragments are they all have one thing in common: They are the remains of rocks that had been stolen and now returned in hope of exoneration from guilt.
This abandoned mound is the “conscience pile.”
Lauren Carter, an interpretation park ranger at the Petrified Forest National Park, recalled the time law enforcement rangers caught a man attempting to steal extreme amounts of the precious rock. He was taking so much that he actually resorted to duct-taping pieces to the bottom of his car.
According to the park Superintendent Brad Traver, an estimated one ton of petrified wood is stolen from the park per month. While there is no actual way to see if this figure is accurate, rangers do consistently catch people trying to smuggle out the precious rocks. Over the past decade, the park has altered its strategy at the park for stopping theft. In the past, the park had been stern and harsh with visitors and has now shifted to sending more positive messages by teaching visitors about all of the parks resources, not just the petrified wood, and the importance of protecting them.
“Petrified wood is the reason the park was established. There are few places in the country even in the world with such a pronounced collection of petrified wood,” Traver said. “Our responsibility is to protect resources and it always has been, but we must have a balance between protecting the resources and helping people enjoy the park.”
In the 1900s, people would be welcomed into the park with an orientation video that flaunted a scene depicting an arrest after attempting to steal pieces of petrified wood. Visitors would exit the park with a single interrogation question of, “Have you taken any petrified wood?”
The harsh protection process of the resources of the park left a negative impact on people. Some visitors and people who did steal or buy rocks from the park felt so guilty they actually returned their pocketed souvenirs.
“They are beautiful, but I can’t enjoy them – they weigh like a ton of bricks on my conscience. Sorry,” reads one of the letters on Bad Luck, Hot Rocks, a website and book by Ryan Thompson. The collections of letters are sent to the park each year from remorseful people who could not resist the urge to grab some of the rocks and are now looking for forgiveness.
“We get sorry letters more than you think. Maybe one or three times a month. We will receive a package with petrified wood in it and a sorry note,” said Carter.
“Dear Mr. Ranger, I am sorry I took this. I am only 5 years old and made a bad mistake. Andy,” said one of the 800 letters Thompson read.
“I was taken back by the letters when I read them. There is an emotional range from sad, guilt, some humorous or even tragic,” Thompson said. The letters vary from children to adults, people returning the rocks out of guilt or because of superstitions, and long descriptive letters to short direct letters.
Although people may be trying to do the right thing, the rocks are now taken out of their provenance forever, lost from their definite context. Instead of being scattered on the grounds of the park, they end up in the “conscience pile.”
“When these rocks are taken, it is human desire versus the importance that piece has geologically,” said Thompson.
Today, under the direction of Traver, the park is dealing with the problem of stolen rocks with a different approach. “There was a social science study 10 years ago proved that a positive message is much more effective than a negative message,” he said
According to Traver and Carter, the consequence of extreme emphasis on theft of petrified wood led the public to believe that “all the wood was being stolen and there was barely any left.” For anyone who visits the park, a walk among the Crystal Forest Trail proves quite the opposite.
Driving down the road to reach the Crystal Forest path, visitors can see massive petrified wood logs scattered throughout the Painted Desert, marking a forest that stood tall over 200 million years ago. Every step of the trail, there is a new piece of petrified wood that shows an array of colorful minerals where there once was brown wood. Hues of blue, brown, purple yellow and red reflect off of the stumps in the sunlight. The remains lie on the ground in separate pieces, representing the 20-foot trees that once loomed above. The trail is evidence on the great abundance of petrified wood still remaining at the park.
While preserving petrified wood is important, the park now shares an emphasis on protecting and educating visitors on all aspects of the park. Other resources at the park include fossils of creatures that roamed the park, archaeological finds such as petroglyphs from a civilization over 1,000 years ago, modern artifacts from Route 66, living plants and animals of the park and historic buildings within the grounds.
“Collecting rocks is such a universal experience. Everyone has stories picking up shells or rocks,” Thompson said. “In this case, people are asking for forgiveness for the rocks they took. On a micro scale it is one small rock but on a macro scale it is a metaphor for humans taking the irreplaceable resources of the world.”
Sara Cline is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.