Community rallies to keep Oracle State Park open

State Sen. Al Melvin (seated at left) listens as docent Mary Bast gives a tour of Oracle State Park's Kannally Ranch House (Photo: Ty Bowers, The Explorer)

[Source: Ty Bowers, The Explorer] — Given the nearly $22 million in immediate budget cuts the Arizona Legislature has proposed for the state park system, keeping Oracle State Park open could prove difficult, Sen. Al Melvin (R-26) told a handful of park supporters Saturday.  “Time is of the essence here,” Melvin said after a tour of the Kannally Ranch House at the park.  On Friday, Feb. 20, the Arizona State Parks Board will vote on whether to close up to eight state parks, the 4,000-acre park in Oracle among them.

A letter-writing campaign could work, especially one featuring a detailed proposal for how the park’s support group, the Friends of Oracle State Park, could help defray operating costs, Melvin strategized.  He would write the parks board, too, the senator said.  “I promise you I will do everything I can … to keep it up and running,” Melvin told a small cadre of some of the park’s most loyal volunteers, many of whom live near Melvin in SaddleBrooke.

Two days earlier, on Feb. 5, more than 100 people had packed the Oracle Community Center to discuss the park’s potential closure.  At that meeting, the Friends of Oracle State Park proposed spending some of $40,000 they had in the bank to keep the park open for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.  It would cost about $1,500 a month to run the park with a shoestring staff — hardly a long-term solution, many volunteers said.

In fiscal 2008, it cost $278,398 to operate the park in Oracle, according to state officials.  The 9,898 recorded visitors to the park brought in $14,492.  When contemplating which parks it might close, the state looked at how much it cost per visitor to operate each park.  It costs $26/visitor to operate Oracle State Park — second highest only to McFarland State Park in Florence.  Numerous people attending the meeting in Oracle last Thursday questioned using cost per visitor as the only metric for deciding which parks to close. “Is that the best way to value a park?” asked Jim Walsh, the Pinal County attorney.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Arizonans worried about possible state park closures

Oracle State Park

[Source: Associated Press] — To many people living in southeastern Pinal County, the Oracle State Park is a hidden environmental gem that draws the local rural communities together.  So concern over its possible closure as part of the state’s attempt to cut a $1.6 billion budget deficit has rippled like a shockwave through Oracle, an unincorporated community 45 miles northeast of Tucson, and the surrounding area.  “Oracle is not incorporated; we’re not a town, we’re not a city,” said area resident Julie Szekely.  “We have no legal entity to provide things like a place for people to get together and do things as a community…  We use Oracle State Park as our neighborhood gathering place.”

The 4,000-acre park was among eight of Arizona’s 27 state parks that officials initially recommended for closure, for a five-month savings of $844,840, because of midyear spending cuts imposed by legislation that Gov. Jan Brewer signed last weekend.  Action on the recommended closures has been tabled temporarily as Arizona Parks Board members examine other alternatives, but 47 state parks seasonal employees were put on leave without pay Friday.

The eight parks recommended for closure had relatively low visitation rates. Officially, the Oracle park only reported 9,989 visitors during 2007-08.  But the front entrance gate is unmanned, with only an honor system for visitors to pay $6 per vehicle without annual passes.  The count likely doesn’t reflect the true number of visitors, more repeat visits by pass-holders and the park’s 125 to 150 volunteers, said Tina Acosta, the park’s assistant manager.  Padlocking its gate would trim $116,000 from the park’s budget through June 30.

Acosta said she fears that “the preservation, conservation, educational, and cultural heritage are not being taken into consideration” by bean-counters. “I think a lot of the more rural parks are very connected to the communities,” she said.  “The people are more connected to the parks.”  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Arizona’s McFarland State Historic Park closes

McFarland State Historic Park, Florence

[Source: Arizona State Parks] — Pinal County’s first courthouse, built in 1878, has been slowly deteriorating since 2001 while Arizona State Parks has saved Heritage Fund monies to get the building repaired.  Today all the buildings at the park closed in anticipation of the re-opening to the public. Structural stabilization of the historic adobe foundation had been slated for completion in 2009.  “Unfortunately in recent years, the structural damage from rain has been so bad that we had to close the historic courthouse last October and staff started dismantling the exhibits in preparation of the renovations,” explained Chief of Operations, Janet Hawks.  “We have been saving funds in the account so that we could finally repair the rock foundation, wide cracks in the adobe walls, crumbling wood porch, add support beams, and grade the site to prevent further destruction.  The deterioration of the foundation poses a threat to the building.  We sent bids for construction out last fall, but now everything is on hold until after our February 20th Board meeting,” she said.

Governor Ernest McFarland bought the Courthouse in 1974 and donated it to the State Parks department.  Another facility behind the Courthouse was built later as a repository for his personal papers.  In 1976 the state legislature did not allocate operating funds so the new Park’s opening date was pushed back.  It wasn’t until March of 1977, during Arizona’s 20th anniversary, that McFarland State Park was opened to the public and later dedicated by Governor Bruce Babbitt.

For 32 years tourists and busloads of children have toured this State Park to experience Arizona’s history and learn how territorial justice was served.  They also were taught about Florence’s World War II POW camps and about one of Arizona’s visionary’s, Governor McFarland, who created the State Parks system 52 years ago.  Interpretive tours of the park feature the courtroom and judge’s chambers, the sheriff’s office, and the jail.  The second story was used as a jury room and quarters for visiting lawmen.  Most of the courthouses’ artifacts were moved out just recently, including McFarland’s personal papers.  The papers will be transferred to the Arizona Library and Archives’ new state-of-the-art building in Phoenix where researchers will be able to more readily access them.  The park staff, who have been preparing for the renovation, will be reassigned to other parks.

A new interpretive plan will be introduced once the stabilization is completed.  The focus for the new exhibits in the Courthouse will feature Arizona’s Territorial history and law and order.  The 1882 jail will be reproduced within the courthouse building.  New updated exhibits about Governor “Mac” McFarland and the World War II Florence POW camp will be displayed in the renovated museum and archives buildings.

Funding sweeps leave Arizona state parks in shambles

[Source: The Zonie Report, July 28, 2008] — The steady gaze of Ernest McFarland, who in the mid-20th century served Arizona as a U.S. senator, governor, and state supreme court justice, looks down on every visitor to the state park that bears his name, a restored frontier courthouse in dusty Florence, built in 1874. “We will never be perfect in our government, but high ideals can predominate,” reads a brass plaque beneath the portrait, quoting one of McFarland’s favorite sayings.

Yet perfection is hardly the word that comes to mind during a tour of McFarland State Historic Park.  Massive cracks stretch from floor to ceiling on more than one of the building’s original adobe walls.  A support beam braces a crumbling exterior wall, keeping the wall and sections of roof from collapsing.  In another room, which over the years served variously as a jail, county hospital and prisoner-of-war camp, caution tape warns visitors to avoid a gaping hole in the floor.

“McFarland did a lot for this state and this community, and I think he would be very saddened if he saw the condition of this building today,” says assistant park manager Terri Leverton.  [Note: To read the full blog entry, click here.  To read the February 4, 2009 blog entry noting The Zonie Report’s “scoop” on the story months before the mainstream pressed picked it up, click here.]