Free state parks from Legislature

[Source: Bill Meeks, Arizona State Parks Foundation, Arizona Republic Opinion] – When the Parks Heritage Fund was eliminated, the Legislature didn’t touch the $10 million Game & Fish Heritage Fund. Why? Because the hook and bullet crowd — the state’s 390,000 licensed fishermen and hunters — are a fearsome adversary.

In contrast, parks and open space advocates are almost invisible to lawmakers. More than 2 million people visit state parks every year, but we don’t know who most of them are or how to reach them.

So, how do we solve the disconnect between lawmakers and Arizona’s heritage?

We should eliminate it by vesting responsibility for today’s parks system and future open space needs in a state parks district not subject to legislative largesse. We can’t plan, build and operate a parks system the way we do now, lurching from one financial crisis to another.

Never mind the details now. Today, the Legislature probably would not refer such a measure to the voters. Getting it on the ballot as an initiative is a million-dollar proposition.

In the meantime, parks supporters need to seek out parks-minded legislative candidates by nailing down their views and commitments during the primary elections. The Arizona State Parks Foundation can assist in this process.

For its part, the foundation is working to vastly improve its social media capabilities in order to attract and motivate a larger corps of supporters and donors.

We are also working to establish a strong interface with the statewide business community. State parks are an economic engine contributing more than $260 million to the Arizona economy. They would contribute much more if they could operate on all cylinders.

Bill Meek is president of the non-profit Arizona State Parks Foundation headquartered in Phoenix.

Arizona state parks plug away without tax funds

[Source: Mary Jo Pitzel, Arizona Republic] – There’s no money to construct boat ramps at Lake Havasu State Park or fix a leaky roof at Kartchner Caverns’ visitor center.

Nor are all Arizona state parks open year-round, or even all week.

And any thought of expansion is a pipe dream, because the parks have gone five years and counting without any money from the state’s general fund.

But, really, things are OK with state parks. So says the agency director, as well as friends and supporters of the 31-property system, who rallied to help keep parks open in the face of apparently irreversible budget cuts.

Kept afloat by partnerships, fee increases and volunteer labor, state parks are a bit like the tattered flag that flaps over a hard-fought battleground. They’re still there. But questions persist about how long the alliances that sustain them will last.

“The business end of Arizona State Parks is very challenging,” said parks director Bryan Martyn. Without general-fund support, which was cut in 2009, it’s hard to predict how much money the system will have from year to year, he said.

For now, partnerships have worked well, said Bill Meek, president of the Arizona State Parks Foundation. But he wonders how long that will last.

“It’s debatable how long some of these partnerships will go,” he said. “Most are local governments, which have their own (budget) issues.”

Some of these partners question why local government is picking up the tab for a state operation, Meek added.

In Flagstaff, a partnership knitted together under the threat of shuttering a historic Arts and Crafts-era home has kept the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park open. The Arizona Historical Society took over operation of the 13,000-square-foot mansion, with assistance from the Riordan Action Network, a network of community supporters.

“State Parks (crews) were coming up here, and they were measuring all the windows for plywood,” said park manager Joe Meehan, recalling the days when the park teetered on the brink of closure. If the house is closed for a year, it reverts to the Riordan family, according to a stipulation written into the deed when the house was turned over to the state in 1986.

Supporters convened community meetings, and out of that grew the action network and a partnership with the historical society.

Meehan, a curator at the nearby Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff, split his time and moved to the mansion to take over as park manager.

“This park is very special to the community,” he said. “It is a showpiece, and it is a piece of art.”

It also is a big piece of Flagstaff history, built at the turn of the 20th century by the two brothers who ran an area lumber mill. Tim and Michael Riordan, along with their spouses, built two mirror-image houses, connected by a large common area they called “the cabin.” The sprawling mansion was nicknamed the “ultimate duplex,” boasting 40 rooms.

The mansion, one of several historic sites in the state parks’ portfolio, fit well with the historical society’s mission, said Bill Peterson, the historical society’s northern-division director.

The society signed a three-year agreement to run the mansion, saving it from closure at the height of the state’s deep budget cuts. The deal has been renewed for another three years.

Gwen Groth helped found the Riordan Action Network in 2009, propelled by her love of history and the mansion’s role in Flagstaff’s story.

The network counts a few hundred members, some even stretching to the Riordans’ home country of Ireland, but it has fallen to a small corps of locals to raise the money that has helped the mansion keep its doors open.

To date, the network has raised $70,000. In the early days, it paid for roof replacement and other maintenance costs.

But Groth said it’s been nearly a year since the group has had to contribute operating expenses, since the park was doing well on fees, concession proceeds and support from the historical society.

That’s freed up money for special projects, like supplies for the mansion’s many gardens and lighting for the courtyard, the site of weddings and other special events.

Between the network support and the partnership with the historical society, Riordan Mansion is faring well. Admission fees and collections from other events are up. The park got a big boost last fall when the federal government’s budget stalemate closed Grand Canyon National Park. Tourists were looking for alternatives, and Riordan was an easy option, Meehan said.

But is this arrangement strong enough to keep the park running in the long run?

“It’s tough,” Meehan said. “But it’s working right now. It’s worked for three years.”

That sense of uncertainty is common among other parks supporters.

Martyn said the parks have benefited from a $1 million appropriation that lawmakers negotiated in this year’s budget. A bill pushed by Sens. Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, and Steve Farley, D-Tucson, took a portion of the interest earned on the state’s “rainy-day fund” and split it evenly between the parks and the Commission on the Arts.

Martyn said the money allowed the agency to bring electricity to campgrounds at three parks, making them more attractive to visitors with recreational vehicles and campers.

“That $1 million will turn into $5 million over the next five years,” Martyn said, counting on an uptick from visitors with RVs.

However, there are no indications the appropriation will continue next year. And a reliable source of parks funding — money from boat-registration fees — could be redirected to county governments for lake improvements if House Bill 2149 becomes law.

Some of the partnerships are dialing back their financial contributions. For example, the Hopi Tribe used to provide $175,000 a year to Homolovi State Park, which is on the reservation. It’s now $50,000, Martyn said.

For the past three years, Yavapai County contributed $90,000 a year to help support the five state parks within its boundaries. Now, it’s nothing.

“They don’t have the money,” Martyn said.

As the support ebbs, the needs pile up.

The parks have $4 million in capital needs. Projects on the waiting list range from running a water line from Benson to Kartchner Caverns State Park to building gallows for Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park.

At the Parks Foundation, Meek takes some comfort from the business plans that have been developed for each of the parks. They are designed to help the parks maximize their revenue and make them self-sustaining.

He believes parks need to forget help from lawmakers “as long as the Republicans are running the Legislature.”

The parks’ long list of needs makes self-sufficiency a difficult goal.

“They have a whole bunch of capital needs just waiting to pounce on them,” Meek said. “They’re one circumstance from being shut down.

“What happens when the wastewater system at Buckskin (Mountain State Park) breaks and starts spewing into the Colorado River?”

 

What do lawmakers have against state parks?

[Source: Arizona Republic Editorial Board] –Arizonans consistently say they value public land and open spaces.

But Arizona lawmakers slashed funding for state parks during the recession and show no intention of healing those cuts.

That’s a disconnect of colossal proportions.

A Gallup Arizona poll released by the Center for the Future of Arizona in 2009 found that “the state’s natural beauty and open spaces are seen by citizens as our greatest asset.” Nearly two decades earlier, Arizona voters overwhelmingly voted to create the Heritage Fund to dedicate proceeds from the Lottery to state parks and the Game and Fish Department.

Today, no general-fund money goes to state parks. The parks’ share of the Heritage Fund money has been eliminated, and a bill in the Legislature would further limit the funds available to run state parks.

“Parks are limping along right now,” says Walter “Bill” Meek, president of the non-profit Arizona State Parks Foundation, which works to preserve, promote and enhance state parks. He says partnerships with cities and counties that have helped keep parks open are in jeopardy as municipalities face budget woes.

Meanwhile, two bills — House Bill 2178 and Senate Bill 1286 — that would re-establish the parks portion of the Heritage Fund are not expected to make it out of the Legislature. Last year, a parks’ Heritage Fund-restoration bill never got out of committee.

Another bill — HB 2601 — would redirect money from the State Lake Improvement Fund that Meek says has been helping run the parks. It passed committee last week.

How bad are things for parks’ funding? In 2009, Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy estimated it would take $30 million to $34 million a year to operate and maintain the current system of 32 state parks and natural areas. The total agency operating budget for fiscal 2014 is $22.46 million, according to the Arizona State Parks fiscal 2012-13 annual report.

This disconnect between what the public wants and what the politicians do is not just an Arizona thing. Colorado College’s recent “State of the Rockies” poll found that residents of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, as well as Arizona, expressed deep love of the public lands and a strong desire for the agencies that manage them to be adequately funded.

This is particularly striking in a region known for criticism of the federal government, yet support for federal land and federal land-management agencies was strong regardless of party affiliation.

Westerners treasure the public lands that celebrate the spirit and beauty that is as vast and liberating as our endless horizons.

So, what’s with the politicians?

The National Park Service faces more than $11 billion in deferred maintenance, according to congressional testimony by NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis last summer. The spending bill approved in January included a modest increase.

Meanwhile, states are pushing for new park lands. Arizona wants to expand Saguaro National Park and Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. This desire to protect unique lands shows foresight as population pressures increase. But land comes with maintenance needs.

Congress and the Arizona Legislature need to recognize that the public’s love of parks and open spaces is not a casual or passing fancy. It’s a deep commitment that has held strong and steady over many years.

Support for public lands should reflect that profound and enduring fact.

After years of budget cuts, greener outlook for Arizona State Parks

[Source: Cortney Bennett, Cronkite News Service]– After years of delivering deep cuts, lawmakers this session are discussing ways to give Arizona State Parks some more money and bring back a lottery-funded grant program the agency administered.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said there seems to be a core group of representatives who are concerned about funding state parks properly. “It is a pleasure to come to the Legislature this year and see several bills that are supporting state parks instead of the opposite,” Bahr told a House committee recently.

HB 2621, introduced by Rep. Juan Carlos Escamilla, D-San Luis, would establish a voluntary fee that owners could pay when registering vehicles. The House Agriculture and Water Committee unanimously approved the bill Feb. 19. “Our state parks are a lot of times our economic tool for small, rural areas,” said Escamilla, whose district includes two state parks. The fee, which under the bill would be set by the Arizona State Parks Board, would provide 85 percent of total proceeds to Arizona State Parks and 15 percent to the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Bryan Martyn, executive director of Arizona State Parks, said Escamilla’s bill would help the agency, which operates primarily on gate fees and since 2009 has received no general fund appropriation. “Make no mistake, Arizona State Parks is a business,” Martyn said. “And we have to search every day to try to figure out how to fund these state resources.”

Cristie Statler, executive director of Arizona State Parks Foundation, an advocacy group, said money generated by the fee would help parks with operations and maintenance. However, she said, it doesn’t solve the agency’s need for sustainable long-term funding. Statler noted that many of the state’s 30 parks currently rely on partnerships with nearby municipalities and nonprofit organizations. “Cities and towns cannot sustain these partnerships,” Statler said. “Their revenues have been stripped as well. What we’re doing is passing this obligation from the state to these cities and towns.”

Bahr said that in the past the Legislature has seemed to view state parks as an expendable luxury. She said the Legislature should come up with a sustainable revenue stream. “These are important assets that protect amazing cultural and biological resources as well as help to sustain many rural economies,” Bahr said.

Joseph Garcia, communication director for Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said it’s encouraging to hear discussion about finding a funding mechanism for state parks that are operating on shoestring budgets. “But if we’re really talking about improving and preserving state parks so they’re more visitor-friendly, then that needs an investment,” Garcia said. The Morrison Institute published a 2009 study that found Arizona spent less on its park system than nearly any other state when viewed as a percentage of the overall budget. “It’s sad that with all the money and energy thats been invested in state parks they’ll close or deteriorate or people won’t visit them because they don’t have modern amenities,” Garcia said.

Meanwhile, HB 2594, sponsored by Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, would among other provisions reinstate the Arizona State Parks Heritage Fund, which used Arizona Lottery proceeds to provide grants for park programs, trails, historic preservation, environmental education and related projects. Arizona State Parks used some of the money for acquisitions and improvements. Arizona State Parks and the Arizona Game and Fish Department had received up to $10 million annually before the Legislature eliminated the Heritage Fund in 2010.

The House Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources endorsed the measure Feb. 18, forwarding it to the Appropriations Committee. Janice Miano, director of administration at the Arizona Heritage Alliance, said communities across the state would benefit from reinstating the Heritage Fund. “Every community in Arizona has received at least one Historical Fund grant over the last 23 years,” Miano said. “It’s certainly an economic engine for the rural communities. It brings in projects that wouldn’t normally be funded.”

Statler said that access to parks in terms of affordable entrance fees could be jeopardized if Arizona State Parks doesn’t receive adequate funding. “You can’t jack up the fees so much that the public can’t visit these parks that are state-owned assets,” Statler said.

Meanwhile, Martyn, the agency’s executive director, said he’s happy that Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget included Arizona State Park’s requested operating budget of $21 million along with $2 million in Arizona Lottery proceeds for capital improvements. “The onus still is on us to demonstrate our value added to Arizona,” Martyn said. “Arizonans have to believe in state parks if we expect them to contribute.”