Group debates the future of state parks in Arizona

[Source: Jon Hutchinson, Verde Independant]

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A powerhouse panel of political players combined with a standing room-only crowd of State Parks supporters and conservationists gathered to help strategize the long-term sustainable operation of the State Parks system Thursday.

Supported by a documentary film, “Postcards from the Parks,” which tells the story of Arizona’s State Parks long-running financial crisis, the panel took five aspects of the issue and fielded questions.

Birgit Lowenstein, who helped organize the Benefactors of the Red Rocks, said, “we have taken State Parks for granted.”

There were also representatives from Cottonwood, Jerome, and Yavapai County, plus a flood of volunteers of the Parks system.

“We have created a financial band-aid, but it is not sustainable. We must find a long-term solution,” urged Lowenstein.”

Chief among the messages of the documentary film: “A closed park doesn’t make any money.”

The closure of the parks would save the government $8 million, but cost $260 million in economic decline to the surrounding communities from the parks’ closure.

The documentary film quotes Director Renee Bahl, “We don’t have to chose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. We can have both.”

The first panel member was the Chairman of the Arizona State Parks Board Reese Woodling. He recalled the meeting of Jan. 15, 2010, made him “sick to his stomach.” That was the day the state board had to announce that 13 State Parks would have to be closed after the legislature gutted the budget of the parks system.

He says, now the “hot issue will be privatization,” but he had a warning: “It’s OK to operate a store or horse facility. We support the National Park Service model of enhanced concessions, but still, the Parks Board needs to be in control of its operations.”

Former District 1 State Senator Tom O’Halleran told the gathering the decline in funding for the state Parks system is not new and since 1980 has been decreasing. Arizona has one of the best State Parks systems in the country, but it has been dead last in funding it and the parks are in decline.

“The State Parks hold Arizona’s cultural and historic perspective. Do we want a concessionaire to say, ‘We will take care of your history for you?'”

O’Halleran says most Arizonans and visitors prefer a formal park and campground. Most people are not trained for wilderness recreation.

He applauded the turnout of more than 125 citizens for the meeting.

“We don’t see this kind of crowd in the legislature and that is probably the reason why the legislature doesn’t believe it is an issue,” said O’Halleran.

“The Verde Valley has more State Parks than anywhere else in the State. We also have more National Monuments,” Chip Davis reminded the crowd. “They are very important to our economy and to our tourism and it is an economic engine for us. But more than that it is part of our character and who we are. And that is why it is such a passionate issue to us.”

Davis speculates that the few number of legislators from rural Arizona — 15 of 90 — account for the small support for the parks system.

“Each one of us needs to take some kind of responsibility in writing our legislators and talking to our neighbors about the importance of the state parks. Arizona was the last in the nation to establish a State Parks system in 1957. Let’s not be the first to close it down,” said Davis.

Bob Burnside, Mayor of Camp Verde, was one of the first local government leaders to step up to keep Fort Verde open. “We don’t have a recreational park like Slide Rock. We have a historic park. Ours is our history and culture. We can probably help out next year and the year after, but can’t do it forever.”

“Governor Brewer and the majority of the legislature have mounted an intentional assault on land conservation and the State Parks system,” believes Sandy Bahr of he Arizona Sierra Club. “They removed all the funding for the operations of the State Parks. They have repealed the Heritage Fund that voters approved by a 2/3 vote. Now they have bonded against that money. It was at the Governors suggestion and the legislature approved it.”

“They have not yet taken the Game and Fish portion of the Heritage Fund, since it is an election year. The Parks Department was working with a $26 million dollar budget in 2009. It now has $8million.”

I have always asked, “Who doesn’t like parks, and this year the legislature demonstrated they don’t like parks.”

The legislature shot down one method of funding the state parks. HCR2040 would have added a small levy on the vehicle licenses. But, the Appropriations Committee Chair would not hear it.

“One thing that hurts is that there are no state parks in Maricopa County,” Bahr believes.

She says, “The thing that is important is just showing up. I have seen people change and we have to give more scrutiny to the Privatization and Efficiency study.”

The gathering was urged to flood the legislature with postcards calling for support of state parks.

O’Halleran closed the meeting with the admonition, “You have to leave here know that we can make real change.”

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