Plans to expand and improve Arizona’s state parks system are under review as key projects face delays and cost increases.
The projects are drawing new scrutiny in the wake of complaints that led to the ouster of Arizona State Parks and Trails director Sue Black. The agency’s current leadership is reviewing all projects to determine their viability and to ensure all permits and clearances are secured properly, interim director Ted Vogt wrote in a Nov. 30 report to a legislative oversight committee.
The committee is scheduled to review the park projects Tuesday.
Only 25 of the 100 cabins planned for various parks through lease-purchase agreements have been installed yet the project’s $1.6 million budget is nearly expended, the report said.
This photo from state Parks documents shows land at Havasu Riviera State Park that was bulldozed. Former Parks archaeologist Will Russell said the state agency might not have followed protocol in determining if archaeological sites were disturbed. (Photo: Arizona State Parks Department)
In a Dec. 11 briefing memo that accompanied the report, legislative budget analysts wrote the shortfall in cabin development was “due to higher-than-expected site preparation costs.” The parks system’s report said the agency is evaluating the cabin project scope based on its recent experience installing the cabins at Lost Dutchman, Patagonia and Lake Havasu parks.
Meanwhile, the planned $4 million development of a new rustic camping park known as Rockin’ River Ranch along the Verde River in Yavapai County is lagging. Parks officials said they can’t accurately determine a construction schedule until completion of designs and, before those, a cultural resource assessment of the property.
Elsewhere, plans given an informal go-ahead by lawmakers in 2016 to redevelop camping sites and recreational vehicle stations at Cattail Cove State Park on Lake Havasu along the Colorado River at a cost of $5.3 million are in a holding pattern as parks officials develop the project’s master plan.
The parks report states the scopes of numerous other improvement and repair projects throughout the park system have changed due to various circumstances, including funding constraints.
Of 13 small projects funded with appropriations in the two fiscal years that ended in mid-2017 and mid-2018, only four are complete, legislative budget analysts said.
The letter asks Ducey to “heal the agency, its staff, the State Parks Board, and concerned citizens who care about our natural, cultural, and historic resources.”
He can make this a priority in his second term under the banner of fixing somebody else’s mistake.
After all, the evisceration of the Parks Board in 2012 and the loss of the Parks’ Heritage funding in 2010 both happened before Ducey took office.
What’s more, reversing those changes is a matter of simple fairness.
The Arizona Game and Fish Commission, a citizens’ group that sets policy for the Game and Fish Department, retained the power that was stripped from the Parks Board.
Game and Fish, which manages Arizona wildlife for hunting, fishing and conservation, also retained its $10 million a year share of Heritage funding, which was included in the original voter-approved initiative.
Why do some outdoor groups get preference?
The so-called “rod and gun” constituency that relies on Game and Fish for their sport has a strong voice in the Legislature – and that’s why that agency retained both citizens’ oversight and Heritage funding. But State Parks have a statewide constituency that, while not as organized, should not be ignored. Hiking, boating, fishing, birding and exploring Native American culture. You can do that and more at these Arizona State Parks. Parks serve an essential role in an increasingly urban Arizona, providing outdoor recreation for everyone and bringing tourism to rural areas.
The State Parks are a vast treasure house of Arizona’s past and present, ranging from the Yuma Territorial Prison to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum to Lake Havasu to Kartchner Caverns to the ancient ruins at Homolovi. Properly protecting and managing this heritage demands a dedicated funding source and good citizen oversight.
How Ducey can make this right
Sure. Sue Black was Ducey’s appointment. That was his mistake.
But two detrimental changes at Parks pre-date Ducey:
Unlike previous directors, Black did not answer to a strong and active Parks Board; she clearly needed that kind of citizen scrutiny.
What’s more, the rush for development to raise revenue might not have happened if the Parks had retained the Heritage money that Arizona voters wanted them to have.
Ducey can begin fixing those problems and answer the letter from his constituents as he crafts his State of the State speech. He can do it with a pledge to restore the Parks’ share of Heritage Fund money and reinvigorate the Parks Board.
Then he can shepherd those changes through a Legislature that will be more diverse next session and more in need of visionary leadership.
Source: Editorial by Linda Valdez; Arizona Republic – November 23, 2018
Arizona’s State Parks got tangled in a big mess on Gov. Doug Ducey’s watch. But he has the tools to fix this.
One is the bully pulpit.
The other is the State Parks Board, a once-powerful body that has been reduced to lapdog status.
“When I was director, the board had authority over everything,” said Ken Travous, who served as parks director from 1986 to 2009. “I served at the pleasure of the board.” That changed. The Parks Board’s authority to hire and fire the director ended in 2012 with GOP Gov. Jan Brewer’s state personnel reform, which was designed to simplify how state employees are hired and fired. In practice, it made it easier to fire state workers. The change in Parks Board authority was included in the bill, even though Parks Board members serve without pay.
Black’s behavior has been the subject of state personnel investigations. Allegations of misbehavior by Black included showing up drunk at public functions, violating procurement rules and berating workers.
“I cannot imagine a board in my time not reacting strongly to those charges against a director,” said Bill Roe, who served on the board from 1986 to 1998, when directors answered to the board. But today’s Parks Board had no power over Black, and Ducey stood by her until she became too great of a political liability.
A strong Parks Board could have acted more decisively. And a strong board is what was intended when the Arizona State Parks system was created in 1957. With seven members appointed by the governor, it has operated effectively under administrations of both parties. It earned a reputation as an engaged board that provided oversight, reviewed budgets, scrutinized policy changes and assured that the public had a voice in the running of State Parks.
The board only met 4 times this year
But the board, which met nearly monthly before the 2012 personnel reform eviscerated it, has sharply curtailed the number of meetings in recent years. It held two meetings in 2016, four in 2017 and four so far this year. “It used to have a much more prominent role in administering the parks,” says the Sierra Club’s Sandy Bahr, who has been active in Arizona resource and environmental issues for decades. The Parks Board was a “forum for listening to the public,” a place for people to raise concerns about Parks’ management and get answers. “Now the public finds things out after the fact,” Bahr said.
In 2015, the board itself ceded more power when it gave the Parks director sole authority to hire and fire employees. Brnovich, who then served on the board, was “the lone dissenting voice” in that vote, says Ryan Anderson, spokesman for the AG’s office. Brnovich resigned from the board later that year.
They gave the director even more power
Former Parks Deputy Director Jay Ream recalls: “Brnovich warned the Parks Board not to authorize the director to hire and fire. They gave it to her and a week later I was gone … I was fired by Sue Black.” He had been been deputy director for nearly two decades.
Was is fair? Was it justified? A powerful Parks Board with its former authority would have demanded good answers. Firing a longtime employee would not have been solely up to a director. Keegan, who subsequently held Ream’s old position at Parks, was fired by Ducey along with Black amid allegations that the department expedited development by ignoring archaeological protection. The Parks Board might have prevented these problems. It would have assured public oversight before the fact – not after. Recent statutory and other changes have taken management of Arizona’s State Parks from the “community perspective to an authoritarian model,” says Travous. It hasn’t worked.
Here’s how Ducey can fix this
Ducey is in the best position to fix it.
Black’s tenure shows why change is needed, and Ducey can make the case better than anyone. After all, the problems that resulted after Brewer’s personnel reform weakened the Parks Board were not Ducey’s doing. But he saw the consequences and can provide the leadership now.
The governor should begin by involving the Parks Board in hiring a new Parks director.
He should encourage the board to have regular meetings.
He should drop the idea of eliminating the board, which he supported previously, and let the board know he expects members to be engaged.
Ducey should build on lawmakers’ understanding of the importance of a public body in land management. After all, the same law that removed the Parks Board’s authority to hire the director specifically retained that power for the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, which sets policy for the Game and Fish Department, and has long had strong support at the Legislature.
Ducey should work to restore the State Parks’ share of Lottery money from the Heritage Fund, which was created by voters in 1990 to provide $10 million annually each to Parks and Game and Fish. The Parks’ money was taken during the recession. Game and Fish kept its allotment.
Ducey can rally public support for stewardship of the state treasures and use it as leverage to move changes through the Legislature.
This is about your legacy, governor
If he does this, Ducey’s legacy as governor will include restoring a Parks’ oversight system that served the state well for decades and assured precious state resources – natural, prehistoric and historic – were wisely managed in full public view with public accountability.
Ducey can refuse to change course and let the next governor earn hero’s status by restoring what will be lost on his watch.
Source: Special by William Thornton to the Arizona Daily Star – November 10, 2018
A recent story in the Arizona Daily Star noted that Gov. Ducey has placed Arizona State Parks and TrailsDirector Sue Black on leave. There’s more to the story. Following the Arizona Republic’s Oct. 29 report that archaeological sites in state parks have been bulldozed to make way for cabins to generate additional revenue, four Native American state legislators requested a criminal investigation to determine whether state and federal laws were violated.
It’s been a wild roller coaster ride for state parks. In September 2017 Arizona State Parks and Trails was awarded the gold medal for the best managed system by the National Recreation and Parks Association. A remarkable turn round when, not so long ago, parks were closing for lack of funding and those remaining open were faced with millions of dollars of backlogged maintenance.
First a bit of history. In 1957, Gov. Ernest McFarland signed the bill that created the Arizona State Parks System, but legislators failed to appropriate funds to provide parks to serve the outdoor recreational needs of a rapidly growing urban population. In 1990, Arizona voters created the Heritage Fund that appropriated $20 million lottery dollars per year to be divided equally between State Parks and Arizona Game and Fish. The infusion of funds provided Arizona State Parks with “seed money” for new properties, to improve existing facilities and complete historical restorations. Every community in Arizona has benefited from Parks Heritage Fund grants at zero cost to taxpayers.
Even with new facilities and increased visitation, state parks suffered from chronic underfunding for operations and maintenance. General fund appropriations ended in 2010. In response to the economic downturn in 2011, the entire Parks Heritage Fund balance was swept into the state general fund and the Parks Heritage Fund was eliminated.
The State Parks Board was left with little choice but to close some of the least visited parks and historic sites. With help from legions of volunteers, host communities responded with heroic efforts to keep their parks open. The outpouring of support for parks was inspiring but not sustainable. A long-term solution was needed. Parks funding is not a problem unique to Arizona. Former Gov. Janet Napolitano appointed a commission to explore additional sources of revenue. The final report was released after Gov. Brewer took office. Possible funding solutions included a voluntary license plate surcharge that’s been successful in other states.
Despite bipartisan support, efforts to refer a bill to voters that would restore the Parks Heritage Fund and provide a dedicated source of parks funding stalled in the Arizona Legislature. An initiative drive failed in 2012. Finances improved when the Legislature allowed Arizona State Parks to keep more revenue from gate receipts, special events and gift shop sales. Visitation was on an upward trajectory when, in 2016, the parks department announced an ambitious program to build 100 new cabins in nine parks to be financed by a public/private partnership. Profits were to be shared by state parks and concessionaires. The question of whether Arizona Parks and Trails would share in any losses was left unanswered.
Fast forward to the present. The job of Parks Director comes with the awesome responsibility of managing natural and cultural resources for present and future generations. After decades of underfunding, it’s understandable that pressure to generate additional revenue was intense. That said, the infliction of irreparable damage to archaeological sites, even if inadvertent, cannot be excused or rationalized. Gov. Ducey has taken an important first step by placing Director Black on leave as the investigation proceeds.
Whether or not laws were broken, Arizona Parks and Trails and Director Black failed to meet her responsibilities and must be held accountable. Even so, the underlying issue of underfunding remains. Revenue generation has taken priority over stewardship of natural and cultural resources. Storm clouds over Arizona State Parks may have a silver lining if we follow up with restoration of the Parks Heritage Fund and a dedicated source of revenue for parks that belong to all Arizonans. The ball is in our court.