Lawmakers must agree to help

[Source: Arizona Republic Editorial, 2/4/2012] – Lawmakers: Take a hike. We mean that in the nicest possible way. You see, our elected officials have been out of step with their constituents. A few hours under a big-sky horizon or a serenade by the wind through some saguaro needles might help them get in touch with those they represent.

Arizonans responded to a recent poll with resounding support for conservation and the state parks.

Yet since 2008, lawmakers have swept $81.6 million from Arizona State Parks. They’ve cut out all state support from the general fund. In addition, the $10 million a year in Lottery money that used to go to the parks, part of the voter-approved Heritage Fund, was eliminated. Completely and permanently. Even the money that the parks raise on their own through user fees was routinely raided.

One positive move is House Bill 2362, which says revenue from park user fees, concessions and other revenue generated by the parks should be used for the parks. The bill passed a House committee unanimously this week. It’s important, but it’s not enough. The years of reduced funding have seriously impacted what the State Parks Board can do.

This does not just impact walks through magnificent landscapes or tours of historic places. The state parks were set up in the late 1950s by forward-looking lawmakers as an economic engine for rural Arizona. They spur tourism to rural communities, drawing more than 2 million visitors a year. Those tourists spend in gas stations, restaurants, shops and hotels.

What’s more, Heritage Fund grants through the Arizona State Parks Board went well beyond the state system to aid cities with outdoor recreation, fund historic preservation and maintain trails throughout the state. That money is gone now. The loss will be felt statewide.

These things matter to Arizonans. They also matter to those who are measuring our state’s quality of life when looking to relocate or set up business. Arizonans get this. A recent poll showed that 87 percent of Arizonans say funding parks should be a priority — even in tough economic times. The “State of the Rockies” report released this week also found that 78 percent of Arizonans think environmental stewardship and a healthy economy are compatible. Pitting one against the other is obsolete.

State lawmakers faced tough budget decisions in recent years. But Arizonans clearly do not want cuts to the state parks to be permanent. This poll, released by the Colorado College, was conducted by two polling firms, one that primarily does work for Republicans and another that usually works for Democrats.

Forty-one percent of respondents said they considered themselves to be conservatives — more than any other single category. Support for conservation was strong across the political spectrum.

Conservation is not a right or left issue to Arizonans. It’s a center-of-the-trail issue. Lawmakers need to get in step.