Rebounding Arizona State Parks System Plans to Add 100 Rental Cabins

Source:  KJZZ 91.5.com – September 28, 2016

Arizona’s rebounding state parks system plans to more than quadruple the number of rental cabins at parks statewide, one of several major projects on the drawing board to improve and expand parks facilities less than a decade after the system struggled to keep parks open during the Great Recession. A legislative oversight committee’s recent endorsement of the plan set the stage for Arizona State Parks to solicit proposals from private vendors for 100 additional cabins at six parks.

The plan would have the park system pay a fraction of the cabins’ up-front costs, with most of the costs paid by a vendor who would provide the cabins. The state and the vendor then would share the rental revenue.

Parks where new cabins would be located are Cattail Cove at Lake Havasu, Lost imagesDutchman in Apache Junction, Dead Horse Ranch in Cottonwood, Roper Lake near Safford, Alamo Lake north of Wenden and Buckskin Mountain near Parker. There are now 28 cabins at four parks: Roper Lake, Alamo Lake, Dead Horse Ranch and Lyman Lake near Springerville.

THE REASONING BEYOND THE PLAN

Executive Director Sue Black said the basis for the planned additional cabins is a belief that there’s a market for them.  “Visitor service is the No. 1 thing,” she told the Associated Press. “My theory is that people want to rent them.” Cabins are particularly useful to tourists visiting Arizona from other countries who can’t easily camp, she said.

“They don’t have all the equipment and gear to go out camping per se,” Black said. “There is the demand out there.” Investments in park improvements pay off, she said. “We electrified 60 sites at one of the parks and our revenue doubled.”

A LOOK AT THE NUMBERS

The money to pay for the state’s anticipated $963,300 share of the up-front costs would come from two special funds, including one fed by taxes on boaters’ gas purchases.  The state would have the option to purchase the 100 cabins from the vendor for $450,000 per cabin after six years and then receive 100 percent of the rental revenue.

“It’s creative financing is what it is,” Black told the AP. “Raise revenues and re-invest … to generate more revenue. Rinse and repeat.”  The occupancy rate for the existing 28 cabins is about 52 percent, according to legislative budget staff. Senior Fiscal Analyst Micaela Larkin told lawmakers during a Sept. 21 committee hearing that the question is whether that rate can be duplicated when there are many more cabins. Black expressed confidence about that during the AP interview. “There is the demand out there,” she said. “I think it’s an exciting time for the parks.”

TIMES HAVE CHANGED

The oversight committee endorsed the cabins project at a meeting when lawmakers also backed a planned $6.4 million redevelopment of Cattail Cove State Park and a total of nearly $2.5 million of projects at five other parks.  The current lineup of expansion and improvement projects stands in sharp contrast to the beginning of the current decade when during the Great Recession the parks system struggled to keep parks open, let alone add facilities or amenities.

Legislators faced with plummeting tax revenues raided the parks system’s funding, and auditors reported in 2012 that reductions or shifts of park system funding totaled $72 million over a five-year period.  Several parks were closed, and others went to seasonal status and operations as the agency shed personnel to cut costs. The state resorted to asking local governments and volunteers to help keep some parks open.

“Don’t Privatize Our Public Parks” Opinion by William Thornton

Source:  Arizona Daily Star – September 5, 2016

Sometimes a good editorial cartoon says more than an entire column.  A good example, by Jeff Stahler, appeared in the Arizona Daily Star on Aug. 27.  A family listens to ghost stories by the campfire.  Father assumes his scariest pose and says: “And then the decided to privatize the national parks.”

It’s a story that’s becoming reality in state and national parks and public lands.  A complex multifaceted issue with strong proponents on each side.  Good information including pros and cons is available online.  I can’t begin to cover the entire subject but in 30-plus years of camping in state, National Park and Forest Service campgrounds we’ve seen the good the bad and the ugly of public vs. contracted private operation.

Fool Hollow State Park on the edge of Show Low is the gold standard for how a park should be run.  We’ve averagedFOHO_G_02 at least two visits per year over more than 25 years and always found it to be fastidiously clean and well maintained. Best of all we’ve never been bothered by loud music or rowdy behavior.  In mid-summer our favorite high-country campgrounds, Winn, and Apache Trout at Big Lake, are run by the same private company under contract to the U.S. Forest Service.

A noteworthy difference between state-run Fool Hollow and contract-operated Winn and Big Lake is the much larger ratio of campers to camp hosts at Winn and Big Lake. Good for the contractor’s bottom line but what about the quality of camping experience.  It depends on the camp hosts.  Over many years camp hosts at Winn have been some of nicest people we’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Friendly, helpful, courteous and conscientious.

At Big Lake it’s been a mixed bag. Camp hosts included one who came on like a marine drill sergeant.  Another required a verbal kick in the fanny to enforce camp ground rules when children drove a go-cart up and down the road subjecting campers to nerve-racking noise and clouds of dust while the camp host did nothing. On another visit an overloaded trash bin stunk so badly that you could smell it half a mile away.

When camping experiences depend on the quality of hosts, we deserve better than luck of the draw whether in state, federal, or contract-operated facilities.  Oversight is the key.  On site-operators will be as good or as bad as the standards they are held to by campground owners, and that would be us. When they take the oath of office, our elected officials accept the awesome responsibility of managing our public lands for present and future generations. When they fail as stewards it’s because we’ve allowed them to.

As we celebrate the 100th birthday of our National Park Service we can be thankful for the foresight of private citizens and elected officials who created a network of protected public lands that’s the envy of the entire world. We must also accept responsibility for the $12 billion of deferred maintenance in our national parks, and many million more in our state parks.  Can private contractors be part of the solution? With effective oversight maybe so; but they must be held to a higher standard than what we’ve experienced.  It’s an election year.  On the presidential level it may be little more than a name-calling contest, but many other state and national offices are up for grabs.  If we want a well-maintained network of parks open and accessible to all now is the time to speak up.

William Thornton is a second-generation native Arizonan, conservationist and outdoor enthusiast. He serves on the boards of the Arizona Heritage Alliance and Friends of Ironwood Forest. Contact him at cactusworld@msn.com

Love Arizona parks? Then get out there and use them

635528131686761919-VerdeKayak-CVR[Arizona Republic Editorial board, December 8, 2014] – There’s a big difference between idealizing a faraway river and feeling the current beneath your boat. That distinction matters to Arizona’s state parks, and the Arizona State Parks Foundation understands why.

When city folks express support for the state parks, it represents a casual friendship. When people get out there and experience the real thing, it leads to a committed, long-term relationship — a relationship worth working to preserve and enrich.

“The more people we get into the parks, the more people will be actively interested in the parks,” says Bill Meek, president of the parks foundation board. “We need to get people out there experiencing what we’ve got.”

An engaged constituency is essential because politicians have not been good to the parks. Funding was stripped during the recession, and the current budget deficit may lead to more pain.

Lack of funding translates into at least $80 million in capital needs at the 31 natural, historic and archaeological sites that make up the state parks system. In addition to funding to keep the sites safe and well maintained, more than $200 million in capital projects have been requested to provide better experiences for visitors.

The problem is not a lack of public support. Over the years, Arizonans have shown continued support for parks in polls, through surveys and at the ballot box. In 1990, they approved the Heritage Fund, which targeted $10 million annually to the parks from Lottery revenues.

The problem is lack of public engagement. Consider this: Lawmakers stripped Heritage funding from the parks during the Great Recession while letting it continue to flow to the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Hunters and anglers form a strong and active constituency. Lawmakers didn’t ignore them.

The constituency for state parks is much broader and less actively engaged politically.

Enter an idea that could help raise money and public consciousness on behalf of these state treasures.

Verde River kayak tours run by the Verde River Institute and the parks foundation include a guide to interpret the flora and fauna, as well as stops at local communities and a tasting session at a winery cooperative.

The $200 fee includes a $115 donation to the parks foundation. Tours this fall brought in about $5,000, which will become seed money to develop a business plan to expand the tours, parks foundation Executive Director Cristie Statler told The Arizona Republic’s Mary Jo Pitzl.

Meek says if the tours are expanded, they could develop a funding stream that lawmakers could not sweep. He says parks systems around the country are using “social enterprise,” an idea that uses commercial strategies to benefit human or environmental needs. That’s the kind of creative thinking our parks need in these tough budget times.

But that’s not all.

Giving people a hands-on experience with resources they had not previously touched deepens their understanding and appreciation. It builds deep commitment. That makes them more likely to “take action and talk to their legislators,” says Doug Von Gausig, director of the Verde River Institute. He leads the river tours.

The more opportunities people have to experience the state parks, the more committed Arizonans will be to speak up for these amazing places.

Source: http://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/editorial/2014/12/07/state-parks-benefit-engaged-constituency/20058401/

7 ways to pay for great state parks

[Source: Arizona Republic Editorial] – The ominous clouds hanging over Arizona State Parks need to start raining money. Parks managers struggle to protect valuable resources with no money from the General Fund. Unique remnants of Arizona’s heritage have lost dedicated money streams meant to protect them.

At risk are playgrounds for urban Arizonans and sources of tourism for rural residents. At stake is the chance for your children and grandchildren to travel through time from cave formations that began 200,000 years ago to prehistoric Indian ruins to a Spanish presidio to a territorial prison — and wrap it all up by waterskiing across a man-made lake.

What’s at stake is something irreplaceable and beloved. “It’s time people got their dander up and told the Legislature this is one thing that touches their lives,” says Ken Travous, former executive director of Arizona State Parks.

Here’s what people should tell lawmakers:

Restore the State Parks share of the Heritage Fund. In 1990, voters approved $10 million a year from Lottery revenues for parks. During the recession, lawmakers took that funding. Several attempts to restore it have failed at the Legislature. It’s past time to give it back.

Restore the authority of State Parks to spend money raised from gate fees, gift shops and other money-making enterprises. Park managers used to put increased revenue to work for the parks. Now they need legislative authorization to spend the money the parks make. Beginning in 2003, that enhancement fund was swept by lawmakers and used to supplant General Fund appropriations.

Encourage innovation and resource development through parks’ concessions and development. Parks Director Bryan Martyn is looking at a plan to contract with a single concessionaire for all the state parks. It could result in more investment in the parks if the private contractor serving big money-makers, such as Lake Havasu, also is required to develop resources in less-visited parks. The State Parks Board needs to carefully scrutinize any contract to make sure it serves the public’s best interest.

Recognize the need to create additional sources of permanent dedicated funding. A 2009 Morrison Institute report put the cost of operating and maintaining the parks at $40 million to $44 million a year. The current budget is half that. In addition, the parks have at least $80 million in capital needs. The idea of a surcharge or voluntary donation on vehicle registration has been floated — and rejected by lawmakers — since 2009. It is a painless way for people to add $5 or $10 every year to benefit state parks.

Dedicated means dedicated. Protect funds that benefit the parks from legislative raids or sweeps.

Restore the authority of the State Parks Board to hire and fire the parks director. That position became a political appointee with 2012 changes in the state personnel system. The director now serves at the pleasure of the governor. The parks board lost clout. The director lost the independence of being insulated from a governor’s whims.

Face facts. “No state parks system in the United States pays for itself from earned revenue,” according to the Morrison Institute report, “The Price of Stewardship: The Future of Arizona’s State Parks.” Parks need more than they get from Arizona’s Legislature. They deserve more.

Arizonans demonstrated their support by establishing the Heritage Fund in 1990, and they reiterated that sentiment nearly two decades later when a Gallup Arizona poll released by the Center for the Future of Arizona found that “the state’s natural beauty and open spaces are seen by citizens as our greatest asset.”

It’s time to stop stiffing state parks.

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WHAT YOU CAN DO

Arizona State Parks are a resource for today and a promise for tomorrow. But short-sighted funding decisions imperil their future. You can help change that.

  • VISIT. Arizona’s state parks offer dazzling natural wonders, family recreational activities and authentic windows into Arizona’s history and prehistory. azstateparks.com
  • BE A CHAMPION. There’s an election coming up. Ask candidates for state office how they plan to support Arizona’s parks and let them know you want this to be a priority issue.
  • GET INVOLVED. More than a dozen parks have volunteer “friends” groups that provide fund-raising and other services for their chosen park. For information on joining or starting one: azstateparks.com/volunteer/v_foundation.html

Arizona State Parks Foundation is a non-profit that engages in advocacy, fund-raising, and other support. Visit their website at arizonastateparksfoundation.org  The Arizona Heritage Alliance is a non-profit that promotes and protects the Heritage Fund and its goals: azheritage.org

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ABOUT THIS SERIES

Arizona State Parks are a valuable resource in great peril. Stripped of funding during the recession, they struggle without state money and stagger under deferred maintenance. Yet they offer open spaces and outdoor recreation for a growing urban population and an economic engine for rural communities. Popular with the public, but lacking political support, funding solutions can help the parks deliver on their remarkable potential.