[Commentary by Don Farmer, Scottsdale, President, Arizona Heritage Alliance Board] – – Our Arizona State Parks are in trouble. It seems the current down economy and resulting state budget meltdown has led our elected legislature to strip out most of the State Parks funding and redirect it to more “important” needs. The direct result of this action is the drastic reduction of the services and programs our State Parks provide us. You do not have to be a State Park visitor to be impacted by this loss. The Arizona State Parks Agency manages 27 parks and natural areas located around the state. They also oversee our State Trails system; manage the Outdoor-Related Grants Program, the State Historic Preservation Office, and the Off-Highway Vehicle Program. The folks at Arizona State Parks have been managing all of these lands and programs in an under-funded condition for years as the legislature chose to sweep one revenue source after another from them. Just one year ago, the situation at State Parks was dire; now with the current loss of funding, the entire agency is threatened with catastrophic collapse.
For whatever the reasons, state budget shortfalls, re-allocation of State Park funding, ignorance towards State Park values or other funding prioritization, it is indefensible that the legislature is strangling the growth and maintenance of assets within the State Parks system. What is next? Are we going to start selling off agency assets to satisfy the state budget needs? The selling of State Park assets certainly is an outrageous notion but is it any less so than the un-funded agency shell that has been left in the wake of the last legislative session’s budget process. What about next year’s budget? From most all accounts, the next few budget years will not show much improvement and the existing funding streams for State Parks will remain mostly empty or undependable.
The Arizona State Parks agency has a solid record of operating-on-a-shoestring a statewide park system, funding for local community historic preservation efforts, and providing assistance to counties, tribal communities, cities and towns towards their own parks and recreation systems. Indeed, Arizona State Parks is the “granting” agency that allows all citizens to enjoy a higher quality of life in Arizona’s communities.
The funding mechanism for Arizona State Parks is broken and we need to implement immediate changes that will ensure an adequate, dependable and increasing funding stream that provides a robust and well maintained State Parks system.
Recently, the Arizona State Parks Board, the citizen commission overseers of the State Parks agency, recommended to Governor Napolitano the formation of a Blue Ribbon Committee, “whose charge would be to determine the present and future needs of the State Park System and explore new revenue sources”. This Committee would recommend new funding strategies and a re-positioning of the agency that will secure a healthy future for the Arizona State Parks.
As individuals, organizations, businesses, counties, cities, towns or tribal entities, we support and use State Park facilities and programs in our community or elsewhere around the state. As such, we should applaud Governor Napolitano for her implementation of this Blue Ribbon Committee. This citizen/governmental task force will provide answers and options to the tough policy and financial questions that currently have our State Parks agency hamstrung and without many options for a healthy future.
Arizona has been blessed with natural beauty and abundant natural resources and we have the luxury to visit and enjoy our State Parks most anytime we choose. If we wish to maintain this lifestyle, a new leadership vision is needed; one that will preserve the best of our natural treasures, plan for open spaces, enhance recreational opportunities and even protect our water and air quality while planning for our future. This new idea seems a worthy goal for our State Parks system, a goal that cannot be achieved by removing that agency’s acquisition and operational funding.
We all share this vision of balancing smart growth with natural and cultural resource protection. The Arizona State Park system, properly funded, is the appropriate agency to connect the various facets of this worthy goal.