For years – decades even – a myth has surrounded Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park: A curse would strike anyone who illegally stole a piece of fossilized ancient wood within park boundaries.
And there are letters to prove it.
Over the years, hundreds of people who have stolen chunks of petrified wood, and eventually regretted their crime, have sent back the fossilized prizes, along with letters of apology. The practice had become so commonplace, park officials named the stack a “conscience pile.”
Some people are driven to return the rocks by a genuine feeling of guilt.
“They are beautiful, but I can’t enjoy them,” one person wrote. “They weigh like a ton of bricks on my conscience.”
Others are children who likely didn’t know better and were caught by their parents. And sometimes, the opposite is true: Children go through their parents’ belongings after they have passed away and find the prehistoric relic.
“Sorry; for my father,” one letter reads.
And there are those who believe when they brought the piece of petrified wood out of park boundaries, they also brought with them the famed curse.
“Please put this back so my husband can get well. I tried to keep him from taking it,” one writer wrote, signing her name as “distrout (sic) wife of Sacramento.”
All this, oddly enough, is a narrative park officials are trying to shift away from, as new tactics are embraced to stop people from stealing the very resource which qualified the desert landscape for national monument status more than 100 years ago and became a national park in 1962.
Looking at Petrified Forest National Park’s history, it’s not hard to understand why a conscience pile exists. Scattered throughout its nearly 150,000 acres, the rainbow-hued fossils, which are all that remain of a prehistoric forest, have consistently been portrayed as victims of theft and destruction.
Throughout the mid-1900s, park managers were in a sort of fervor that people coming to the park were taking out pieces of wood en masse. No real studies were ever conducted at the time, yet officials consistently said a ton of petrified wood a month was being stolen from the park, sowing a sense of suspicion at park visitors.
These concerns were exacerbated when South Dakota’s Fossil Cycad National Monument, which held the country’s richest deposits of petrified cycadeoid plants, lost its monument status in 1957 after vandals stole or destroyed nearly all the fossils in the park.
Officials were afraid Petrified Forest National Park could be decommissioned as well, so they restricted access to certain areas, held inspections at the exit gate and had signs throughout the park that threatened heavy enforcement and consequences. In essence, everyone was a suspect.
“We were so focused on trying to prevent wood theft,” said Sarah Herve, spokeswoman for the park, “that we were not welcoming.”
The conscience piles have captured public fascination, for a number of reasons.
Ryan Thompson, co-author of “Bad Luck, Hot Rocks,” reviewed more than 800 letters in the conscience pile in the early 2010s for his book, saying they ran the gamut of funny, tragic and repentant. But at their core, the notes are trying to rectify a past mistake.
“I think it’s a good impulse,” he said. “These folks are wrestling with a bad decision, and thousands of people are trying to make something right in their lives, even if it’s a little bit misguided.”
The irony is, the returned prehistoric contraband can’t be placed back in the park. Herve said park officials don’t know where the pieces were stolen from, or if they even really came from the park. So, it would be out of context and ruin future research efforts to arbitrarily place the returned wood somewhere.
“Honestly, we don’t want it back,” she said. “We weren’t doing ourselves any favors talking about wood theft.”
Yet, conscience letters trickle in to this day – more often than not, after being mentioned in television shows or in an article like this one. Herve said the park received 16 letters from January to April 2019. Yet after the “Dead to Me” show mentioned the curse May 3, nearly 90 more letters were sent by the end of the year.
But a change is happening at Petrified Forest National Park.
Robert Cialdini, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, said he and his colleagues conducted a study years ago, looking at how certain signs and messaging at the park influenced visitor behavior.
Previously, the park had signs strategically placed that showed several people stealing petrified wood, which Cialdini said had the effect of normalizing the act. Researchers placed marked fossils next to these signs and found thefts tripled.
But when researchers put up new signs that showed only one person illegally taking a piece of wood, Cialdini said the image marginalized the individual and the crime. Theft, as a result, was nearly halved in these spots.
“That was substantially more successful,” he said.
But Cialdini said park managers for years refused to embrace the findings of the new study, opting instead to engage in more aggressive tactics.
That is, until recently.
In the mid-2010s, an effort was underway to compare historic photos to more recent images taken at Petrified Forest National Park. It was then that park managers started noticing the scale of theft possibly wasn’t as widespread as originally thought.
Then, with the arrival of park superintendent Brad Traver (now retired), a sea change happened, as Traver heralded a new strategy: embracing and celebrating the park’s 600,000 to 800,000 annual visitors.
“Now, the focus is on being more welcoming, providing more opportunities for visitors, while remaining diligent with law enforcement and presence,” Herve said.
The park started removing negative messages: The park orientation video at the visitor center used to have a scene of someone getting arrested. Now, that scene has been cut out, and the movie instead highlights the scientific research happening at the park.
But Herve said the park must keep law enforcement and ranger presence a priority. While most people abide by the rules, there always will be a few who break them. In 2016, for instance, a Colorado man tried to steal nearly 140 pounds of petrified wood, but he was caught.
“Making this place a national park worked, the protection worked,” Herve said. “And we really want visitors to want to come here and experience this place. The Painted Desert is an absolutely beautiful thing to visit and hike. But it only works if we remain vigilant.”