Budget plan avoids more Arizona state park closures

[Source: Casey Newton, Arizona Republic] — The state will likely avoid closing additional parks under a budget plan adopted Monday by the Arizona State Parks Board.  The board voted to adopt a $21.4 million budget that will preserve most hours of operations at the state’s 30 parks.  The parks system closed McFarland and Jerome state historic parks earlier this year after lawmakers slashed its budget by more than $36 million in the past year.  The parks board will meet next month to set new priorities and determine whether the parks will be reopened.

“It’s dark days,” said Renee Bahl, the parks system’s executive director.  “The bottom line is there’s just no more money.”

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, which also closed as part of cost-saving measures for the parks system, re-opened on weekends this summer with funding from the town of Payson.  The state’s agreement with Payson ended Sunday, and officials were hoping to negotiate an extension this week. Otherwise, the park will close.  [Note: To read the full article, click here]

Viewpoint: Arizona legislature on verge of shutting park system

[Source: Bill Meek, President, Arizona State Parks Foundation, Camp Verde Bugle] — Without the Legislature’s help in securing immediate additional revenues for Arizona State Parks, the current FY10 budget will force closure of virtually all state parks, shutting a system that serves more than two million visitors annually, while depriving local communities of some $266 million a year in parks-related income.  During a public workshop last week, State Parks Director Renee Bahl explained that legislative sweeps of parks funds, including $3 million in entry fee income, have left State Parks with only $8.4 million in operating revenues for the fiscal year.  This compares to $30 million needed for bare bones operations, excluding any capital funds for repair of badly deteriorating historic buildings, unsafe sewer park systems and eroding lakefront facilities.  Such scant operational money is not enough to even close, fence and guard Arizona’s treasured array of 30 parks, recreation areas and historic sites, Bahl noted.

To avoid this disaster, somewhere between $18 million and $22 million must be restored to State Parks — an amount accounting for about 1/10th percent of the state’s overall budget and less than a half percent of its current $4 billion deficit.  Not to provide such modest funding will effectively wipe out more than 50 years of taxpayer investment in buying, building and opening such heavily-visited places as Kartchner Caverns; Havasu and Alamo lakes and on the state’s west side; Slide Rock, Red Rock and Dead Horse Ranch state parks in Northern Arizona; and Catalina, Oracle and Patagonia Lake state parks in southeast Arizona to name a few. [Note: To read the full story, click here]

Arizona state parks open after hours-long closure

[Source: Arizona Daily Sun, Associated Press] — State parks reopened Wednesday morning after concerns about the lack of a state budget prompted an overnight closure.  A state budget passed early Wednesday averted a government shutdown, even though Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed portions of the multi-bill package.  Parks had been ordered closed on Tuesday afternoon, but the passage ensured they would reopen for the upcoming July 4 holiday.

An estimated 55,000 people are expected to visit the 30 sites within the parks system over the weekend, said State Parks Director Renee Bahl.  Rangers removed signs Wednesday morning that advised visitors of the closure.  “Nobody is happier than we are to welcome guests back into the parks and to get ready for our biggest week of the year,” Bahl said.

The midnight deadline to pass a budget under the state constitution passed Tuesday with little immediate effect to agencies other than parks.  Most state agencies were closed, and Brewer already had told public safety agencies to maintain normal operations.  Fred Solop, chairman of Northern Arizona University’s Department of Politics and International Affairs, said the delay put the state parks system in a difficult situation.  “Clearly the parks felt they had to do something given the big weekend that was coming,” he said.  “It was prudent for them to shut down early. It would be much more difficult to tell people they had to leave a campsite Fourth of July weekend.” [Note: To read the full article: Arizona state parks open after hours-long closure]

New Arizona state parks chief once vandalized park property

Arizona State Parks Assistant Director Renée Bahl, who oversees Arizona's State Historic Preservation Office, carved her name into a 100-year old adobe wall at the historic San Rafael Ranch in Santa Cruz County.[Source: Casey Newton, Arizona Republic] — The woman chosen to be the next director of Arizona’s state parks once carved her name into a historic park property in southeastern Arizona.   She also helped recover thousands of acres of burned parkland in San Diego County and launched an innovative system for making campground reservations online. The Arizona State Parks Board’s unanimous selection of Renée Bahl to take over the parks system next month has polarized state leaders.

Parks officials say she is a dynamic, experienced professional who will help lead the parks system out of a historic budget crisis.  Bahl, 40, is “a vigorous, intelligent, resourceful person who knows how to get through the most difficult of times,” said Bill Scalzo, who led the selection committee for the Arizona State Parks Board. The board voted to pick Bahl last week.  But at least one lawmaker says her selection as director is inappropriate given a vandalism incident that took place nearly a decade ago.

Bahl, a former assistant state parks director, oversaw historic preservation at the San Rafael Ranch. San Rafael, which is not open to the public, is a 3,500-acre preserve purchased by the parks board in 1999.  It sits at the headwaters of the Santa Cruz River and is home to a variety of wildlife and endangered plants.  In 2001, another employee caught her etching her first name and the year into the wall of a historic adobe barn.  Bahl was disciplined but remained in her job until 2002, when she left to become director of parks and recreation for San Diego County, Calif.

State Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, criticized the selection.  “She was in a position overseeing the state’s historic preservation office,” said Patterson, the southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who wrote about the issue on his blog.  “It’s hard for me to understand that someone in that position could be so clueless that they would think it would be OK to vandalize a state historic property.” Patterson called for Bahl to issue a public apology.

Through a spokeswoman, Bahl declined to comment.  Officials said they were impressed with Bahl’s education, which includes a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in public administration with a focus on natural-resource management.

Scalzo said Bahl brought up the vandalism incident during an interview and apologized for it, saying she had made a mistake.  “One thing I really appreciated is she brought that up,” Scalzo said.  “She didn’t say, ‘I’ve had a perfect career, I don’t make mistakes.’ ”

Bahl, who will make about $140,000 a year, will take over for Ken Travous, who is retiring after 23 years leading the parks system.  She will oversee a budget of about $23 million, most of it from grants and user fees, and about 270 employees.  Lawmakers swept $36 million from parks coffers in the last year, prompting the closure of three parks and threatening several more.  The board is currently working to prevent further cuts proposed by the Legislature’s Republican leadership, which board members say would devastate the system.

Scalzo called criticism a distraction from the parks board’s most pressing problems.  “We need help, we don’t need criticism,” he said.  “We need to have this new person come in here with everyone wishing her the best. Because she’s going to need every bit of it.” [Note: To read the full article, click here.]