[Source: Casey Newton, Arizona Republic] — The Arizona State Parks Board voted unanimously Friday to begin shuttering state parks, a move that will leave the parks system with fewer than one third of its properties open by June 3. In an emotional public meeting that lasted nearly six hours, parks-board members heard from dozens of residents from across the state, pleading to keep the parks open despite steep budget cuts.
Local elected officials warned of dire economic consequences to their towns. Sheriff’s deputies said they will no longer be able to patrol some lakes. Park volunteers offered to run the parks for free. But board members said they had no choice but to close 21 of 30 parks and recreation areas following last month’s special session of the Legislature, in which $8.6 million was cut from their budget. That was on top of $34 million in cuts in the previous year. “Unfortunately, we don’t have options,” said Walter Armer, a member of the board.
Among the most popular parks slated for closure are Roper Lake, which drew 86,000 visitors in 2008, and Picacho Peak, which drew more than 98,000. The parks that will remain open generate revenue for the system, such as Slide Rock and Kartchner Caverns. The parks system records more than 2.2 million total visits a year, according to the Arizona State Parks Department. Armer added that the board would work to reopen the parks as soon as it had the funds to do so.
Several proposals are making the rounds in the Legislature, including one that would add a roughly $9 fee to the cost of registering a vehicle. The money would pay for park operations, and Arizonans would then be able to get into any state park without paying an additional fee. The proposal with the most support at the moment would refer the question of whether to impose that fee to voters, said Jay Ziemann, the department’s legislative liaison.
Wittmann resident Chrissy Kondrat-Smith took her daughter, Sydney, to every state park one recent summer. The 4,000-mile journey inspired Sydney to become a junior park ranger at Red Rock State Park, which is slated to close. Sydney, 8, recorded a video letter to Santa Claus over the holidays, asking him to keep the parks open. Sydney began crying when she learned the parks would close. She couldn’t understand why the parks can’t stay open with volunteer labor, her mother said.
Others expressed concern about what will happen to the parks once staff members aren’t around to protect them. Although the parks board does intend the closed parks to be patrolled, it remains unclear how many staffers will be available.
Charles Adams, a professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona, warned that closed parks would become magnets for vandals and thieves. Adams expressed particular concern for the Homolovi Ruins, an archaeological treasure that was brought into the parks system in part to protect it from theft. “There is great concern in the archaeological community as some of these close,” Adams told the board. “They are extremely vulnerable.”
As the meeting concluded, members of the parks staff received word that Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget proposal released Friday would make further reductions to the parks budget, which could make Arizona the first state in the nation to close its entire parks system. “We have a huge collective fight on our hands,” said Arlan Colton, a member of the board. “And that’s our fight for survival.” [Note: To read the full article, visit Board votes to close 21 of 30 Arizona state parks by June.]