Arizona House advances state parks funding measure

[Source: Tucson Citizen/Associated Press] — Taking a path that critics said would put lawmakers on legally shaky ground, the Arizona House of Representatives on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a plan to keep threatened state parks open by diverting money from a voter-mandated program for land conservation for open space.  The measure aims to reverse recent state budget cuts that have put numerous state parks at risk of closure.  It has backing from parks advocates but is opposed by the Sierra Club, a lobbying group for environmentalists.  Because it would modify a voter-approved law, the Arizona Constitution requires that the measure both be approved by three-quarters of each legislative chamber and further the intent of the voter-approved law.

The land conservation fund, which provides grants for land purchases by local governments, was authorized under a growth-planning law approved by voters in 1998.  With Thursday’s voice vote, the Republican-backed measure faces an expected formal House vote next week.  Passage would send it to the Senate.  However, passage by the 60-member House is not assured as Democratic leaders criticized the measure during debate Thursday.  Even if all 35 majority Republican representatives vote for the bill (HB2088), a three-quarters vote would require backing from at least 10 of the 25 Democrats.

The legislation would return the $20 million to the land conservation fund in 2012, and supporters of the bill said the state money won’t be missed in the meantime because current economic hard times mean local governments can’t afford their shares of the cost of land purchases.  “We have a great opportunity, instead of putting money aside in a fund that we cannot use,” said Rep. Andy Tobin, R-Paulden.

Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said he supports keeping parks open but not by tampering with a voter-approved law.  “We see this bill as being illegal and not furthering the intent of the voters,” Campbell said.

The Parks Department has already closed three parks — McFarland Historic, Jerome Historic and Tonto Natural Bridge — but eight others are also listed as candidates for temporary closure because of the funding cuts made to close a big shortfall in the current state budget.  The eight are Fort Verde, Homolovi, Lyman Lake, Oracle, Red Rock, Riordan Mansion, Tubac Presidio, Yuma Quartermaster Depot.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

2 more Arizona state parks closed; 8 in jeopardy

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park: This geological formation near Payson attracted 87,930 visitors in 2008. It is one of two additional state parks that will close immediately to allow for repairs necessary for visitors' safety, officials said.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park (Photo: David Wallace, Arizona Republic)

[Source: Casey Newton, Arizona Republic] — Two state parks will close indefinitely and eight more will remain on the chopping block as part of budget cuts approved Friday by the Arizona State Parks Board.  Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and Jerome State Historic Park will close immediately to allow for repairs necessary for visitors’ safety, officials said.  McFarland State Park closed earlier this month for the same reason. Combined with layoffs, the suspension of grants for capital projects and other measures, the park closures will help the parks board pay a $27 million bill to the state due next Saturday.  That figure represents the funds taken by the Legislature last month as part of a $1.6 billion budget fix for fiscal 2009.

Even after the Friday cuts, which were approved on a 3-1 vote, the parks board still must find an additional $3 million in savings by June 30.  That leaves the fate of eight more state parks up in the air: Homolovi Ruins, Oracle, Yuma Quartermaster Depot, Tubac Presidio, Fort Verde, Lyman Lake, Riordan Mansion, and Red Rock.  Whether those parks remain open depends largely on whether the Legislature makes further cuts to state parks as part of the fiscal 2010 budget.  Arizona faces an estimated $3 billion budget shortfall.

Board members were pessimistic about the prospect of keeping all or even most of the eight parks open.  “Don’t leave here today thinking we’re not going to close more parks,” board member Bill Scalzo said after more than five hours of meetings. “We probably will.”  [Note: To read the full article, click here.  Additional news coverage at Arizona Daily Sun, Cronkite News ServiceKNXV PhoenixKSWT Yuma, KTAR Radio PhoenixPayson RoundupSierra Vista Herald, Tucson Citizen.]

More Arizona state parks eyed for closure

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park added to closure list.

[Source: Associated Press] — Three more state parks are being considered for closure because of state budget cuts, bringing to 11 the number that could be shuttered in coming weeks.  Parks Director Ken Travous told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he is adding the three additional parks to a list of eight others previously identified as being considered for closure.

Travous identified the three as Red Rock State Park in Sedona, Jerome State Historic Park in Jerome, and Tonto National Bridge State Park near Payson.  Jerome State Historic Park centers on the Douglas Mansion, a landmark built in the former mining community that overlooks the Verde Valley.  Red Rock State Park, originally part of a ranch, is a 286-acre nature preserve and environmental education center.  Tonto Bridge is a natural geological feature located in a valley in pine country below the Mogollon Rim.

The state Parks Board will meet Friday in Peoria to consider cost-cutting measures that include park closures, seasonal closures and reduced hours of operations.  Other options include grant cancellations, shifting expenses to other accounts, and layoffs and unpaid time off for employees.  The board on Feb. 3 declined to take immediate action on park closures but voted to have Travous’ department proceed with planning possible economy moves, including alternatives to closures.

Travous said he has already effectively laid off approximately 65 seasonal employees, including some who had been slated to go on the payroll but now will not.  Parks previously identified as being considered for closure were: Fort Verde State Historic Park in Camp Verde, Homolovi Ruins State Park in Winslow, Lyman Lake State Park in Springerville, McFarland State Historic Park in Florence, Oracle State Park in Oracle, Riordan Mansion State Historic Park in Flagstaff, Tubac Presidio State Historic Park in Tubac, and Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park.  Travous said those were chosen for possible closure because of low visitation rates.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Arizona House panel backs funding special fund for state parks

Florence's McFarland State Historic Park, including 1878 courthouse, now closed.

[Source: Associated Press] — Republican legislators on Tuesday moved to keep state parks open by taking money from a special fund for land conservation, rejecting criticism that the proposed diversion could violate a constitutional protection for voter-approved laws.  The House Government Committee voted 6-3 to postpone for one year a $20 million annual payment to the Land Conservation Fund and use the money to undo parks-related spending cuts and fund transfers included in a recent midyear budget-balancing package.

Parks officials have said the budget cuts could force closures of eight parks, and backers of the new proposal called it a creative way to keep some or all open.  Parks tabbed for possible closure: Fort Verde State Historic Park in Camp Verde, Homolovi Ruins State Park in Winslow, Lyman Lake State Park in Springerville, Oracle State Park in Oracle, Riordan Mansion State Historic Park in Flagstaff, Tubac Presidio State Historic Park in Tubac, and Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park.   One of the eight, McFarland State Historic Park in Florence, was closed Friday because of deteriorating facilities.

The Land Conservation Fund was created under so-called “Growing Smarter” legislation that was approved by voters after being referred to the 1998 ballot by the Legislature.  Under the Arizona Constitution, changes to voter-approved laws can only be made with 3/4 votes by each legislative chamber and if the change furthers the intent of the original law.

Rep. Warde Nichols, a Chandler Republican who proposed the diversion, called it a “creative way” to keeping parks open while comporting with the 1998 law’s intent by promoting conservation and recreation activities.  Besides, with housing construction in a slump, “urban sprawl in our state is not currently a problem,” he said.

Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, said the conservation fund was for land acquisition, not other purposes.  “It could be considered a twist of logic,” he said.  Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said the 1998 law “was sold to voters” as providing money for land conservation.  “You’re really out on a limb here,” she said.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.  To read related Arizona Republic article, click here.]