Viewpoint: Decision on Arizona state park closures in need of alternatives

[Source: Dave D. White, associate professor of parks & recreation management, ASU School of Community Resources & Development, Arizona Republic] — Arizona has long been a land of opportunity and renewal.  This is a place where most people come from somewhere else.  We flock to Arizona to work; start a family; retire; enjoy the warm climate; and explore the beautiful deserts, forests, rivers and canyons.  In short, people value Arizona for the high quality of life that exists because of the foresight of those who fought to conserve our natural and cultural heritage by protecting special places such as Arizona State Parks.  These parks benefit all residents by providing recreation opportunities, conserving natural areas, spurring economic development, and preserving our history.

Now, massive budget cuts enacted by the state Legislature and governor threaten to force the permanent closure of almost one-third of all state parks.  The agency simply would have to lock the gates and walk away.  These cuts also would slash grants to local communities and end programs to teach our children about nature and history.

In a recent emergency meeting, the State Parks Board agreed to make these difficult choices during its regular meeting on Feb. 20.  This is a temporary pardon of the death penalty for up to eight state parks, and residents will have one last opportunity to speak up.  The proposed closures would disproportionately affect historic and cultural parks.  These places tell the stories of our pioneer past, our military history, tales of our founding families, and tales of our Native American ancestors.  These parks provide a link from the past to the present and teach us who we are and how we came to be here.

Some say the closures are justified by low visitation rates, poor fee receipts and crumbling infrastructure at these parks.  Certainly, we need to take a careful and thorough look at the state park system, including how the agency is funded, how much is charged to enter a park and what alternatives exist.  Some closures may be necessary.  However, this should be a deliberate and careful choice, not a knee-jerk decision forced upon us by Draconian midyear budget cuts.  Other possibilities — staff furloughs, seasonal closings, a hiring freeze, and limiting hours open to the public — are available to give the agency time to make more informed decisions about permanent closures.  Let’s show future generations that we measure quality-of-life results not only in economic terms, but also in social and environmental dimensions.