Fossil-theft phenomenon has petrified forest visitors returning 'keepsakes'

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ESCALANTE PETRIFIED FOREST STATE PARK — Many visitors to one of Utah's lesser-known state parks seem to think there is an ancient curse hanging over the area. They typically have a string of rotten luck that proves — to them at least — the curse is real.

Guilt-ridden former visitors often send chunks of petrified wood back to the park, apologizing for having stolen it years before.

"It happens about a half-dozen to a dozen times a year," said park manager Kendall Farnsworth, as he held an envelope mailed to the park containing a piece of fossilized wood. "They're sending it back, trying to get rid of the curse."

A letter accompanying the rock said, "I picked up this small piece of wood when I visited last year. I thought the warnings were phony. Since that time, I have had three accidents."

The apologetic letter writer went on to describe a series of accidents, injuries and misfortunes, including a broken collarbone, three broken ribs and a broken foot, not to mention a fire in his motor home and the fact that the engine in his car "went south shortly after the warranty expired." All of that, he believes, was payback for defying the curse.

"I am a true believer," the writer concluded, asking park officials to right his wrong. "Please take this back."

The alleged curse evidently has not substantially deterred visitors from plundering the state park just outside the city of Escalante in Garfield County, though. Areas nearest the parking lot and campground have been picked clean of petrified wood, an indication that the greediest visitors may also be the laziest. Visitors have to hike a mile or so up a trail to the top of a mesa to find petrified wood deposits that are relatively unspoiled by collectors.

Those who pocket even the tiniest pieces of wood are not only defying the curse — they are also breaking the law.

Fossil-theft phenomenon has petrified forest visitors returning 'keepsakes'
Photo: John Hollenhorst/KSL TV

"It is illegal," Farnsworth said. "It's illegal to take anything out of a state park."

It might also be dangerous to a visitor's health, at least according to a display in the park visitors center that is clearly intended to give fair warning. In a glass exhibit case, park officials have placed a collection of letters that are dripping with regret and drenched with sorrow, a steady stream of human woe and burning guilt.

"A lot of it does come down to guilt," Farnsworth said, "and guilt is the great equalizer."

The letters ought to give second thoughts to even the greediest of felonious fossil fanciers.

"I would advise anyone who thinks lightly of the bad luck to think again," one letter reads. "Please place these back in their rightful place and ask for my forgiveness. … Let's just say I learned my lesson."

A 2004 letter signed by Kaspar Rudisihli of Basel, Switzerland, reads, "Since my travel three years ago, I had no good luck in my life, but every year an accident or a disease. … I hope with this act of restitution (the) Lord will have mercy upon me. I apologize and beg your pardon. Sorry."

Another writer said, "I usually don't believe in this kind of stuff, but I have experienced a much higher than normal rate of bad luck since taking the wood pieces. … My deepest apologies."

Of course, even the most law-abiding and curse-free people on the planet will have a string of bad luck once in a while. Some folks who have never stolen a fossil simply have bad luck all the time.

It raises the question: Can we trust the despair-filled words of a few outliers? In other words, is the curse real?

I would advise anyone who thinks lightly of the bad luck to think again. Please place these back in their rightful place and ask for my forgiveness. … Let's just say I learned my lesson.

–'Cursed' Letter Writer

Farnsworth claimed to be convinced, although he sounded more amused than awed by the curse.

"I think with all the letters we get and all the bad luck we're hearing about," he said with a smile, "I think I'm going to have to go with the curse."

However, the purported curse has not deterred Farnsworth from proposing to take petrified wood from a place where nature put it. He's asked the BLM for permission to move a fossilized tree that's at least 40 feet long.

Farnsworth wants to move it from nearby BLM land to the park's campground area so visitors can see petrified wood in a convenient place.

"It's really going to open the door for a lot of people that aren't able to get up and do the hike to see the petrified wood specimens we have here," Farnsworth explained.

The request has been controversial because some think the fossil tree ought to stay in its natural geologic setting.

But, of course, there's a deeper, more worrisome question: What if the ancient curse applies to BLM land as well?

"Well, I guess we'll find out," Farnsworth chuckled, sounding a bit like he might be holding his tongue firmly in his cheek.


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John Hollenhorst


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