Roper Lake safe for now

[Source: Diane Saunders, Eastern Arizonan Courier]

Roper Lake State Park will likely stay open, but its future could lie in the hands of a private company.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wants to maintain state park funding at its current level, according to the state’s executive budget summary, but the State Senate is calling for a sweep of $2.090 million from the State Parks Enhancement Fund and privatization of “some or all state parks.”

The State Parks Enhancement fund is money from gate receipts, according to Cristie Statler, executive director of the Arizona State Parks Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the parks.

Last year, the Legislature swept money from the Arizona Heritage Fund — a funding source for state parks. That left the Enhancement Fund to pay for repairs or improvements.

“We’ve never been more reliant on the Enhancement Fund than now,” Statler said in a phone interview Thursday. This fund has about $10 million.

She added that the State Senate, House of Representatives and Brewer must agree to transferring the state park money to the state’s general fund.

A “fact sheet” for Senate Bill 1624 shows the State Parks Board must allow a private contractor to operate at least one park that was profitable and one that was not profitable last year. The board must award contracts by Feb. 1, 2012.

Meanwhile, District 5 Senator Sylvia Allen believes “Roper Lake will survive.” She also believes privatization is a good option.

Allen said Friday that negotiations continue for funding the state parks, including Roper Lake.

Editorial: A call to shield state showcases

[Source: The Arizona Republic]

A business would go belly up if someone diverted a big chunk of its revenue.

So the Senate’s proposed raid on Arizona State Parks is just baffling.

These are the places that showcase the magic of Arizona, from Slide Rock to Kartchner Caverns to Picacho Peak. And they’ve been slammed by budget cutbacks.

In fact, the general fund doesn’t put a single penny into the state park system any more.

So the parks increasingly rely on the income they can generate through fees and retail sales. Next fiscal year, which begins July 1, they expect to raise $10 million.

But the Senate passed a budget that would swipe $2 million of park income. Those dollars come directly from visitors, who assume that their fees are supporting the continued survival of the places they enjoy.

The 20 percent hit would severely undercut the partnerships that helped reopen parks that had to be shuttered last year. Local governments and groups are lending a hand at historic sites like Fort Verde, Tombstone Courthouse and Yuma Prison. They’re keeping the gates open at recreational playgrounds, such as Tonto Natural Bridge, Lost Dutchman and Alamo Lake. These are important attractions in areas that depend heavily on tourism.

It gets worse. The Senate-adopted budget would also siphon off $1.5 million that the parks get from the lake-improvement fund, which comes from watercraft fees and fuel taxes.

Legislators often say that government should operate more like a business. Well, the parks are following a business model.

But the Senate’s model is closer to piracy.

The state-park system has had $72 million in cuts over the past three years. Its entire operating budget, covering everything from law enforcement to toilet paper, is now $19 million.

Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget recognizes that the parks’ survival is on the line. It has no further cuts or diversions.

Unfortunately, the potential damage doesn’t end at the budget.

The Senate would require the State Parks Board, which oversees the system, to issue a request for proposals for the private operation of some or all state parks. It would have to contract out the management of at least two state parks (a profitable one bundled with an unprofitable one) by Feb. 1, 2012.

Expanding private enterprise within the parks is a smart idea. This is just a poorly conceived way to do it.

The Senate bill has no provisions for private operators interested in one or two concessions in a park. It sets out no criteria for responsible operations, no protections for these valuable publicly owned assets and no financial standards. The deadline could force the state to accept a very bad deal.

Last year, the Arizona State Parks Foundation commissioned a study that gave a detailed analysis of the opportunities and limitations of privatization, which could involve either businesses or non-profit groups. The ideas ranged from cafes to lattice-framed yurts.

The study also proposed creating a quasi-governmental agency to oversee the parks.

These are valuable places, even for Arizonans who never set foot in them. In 2007, a study estimated, the economic impact of state parks was $266 million.

A financially stable state-park system, with the resources to expand the recreational opportunities for visitors (imagine a zip line at Slide Rock), would strengthen Arizona’s allure as a tourist destination.

The Legislature should not undermine it with budget cuts and hasty privatization mandates.

Partnerships sustain Arizona’s state parks

[Source: Ginger Rough,]

For more than a year, Arizona’s parks system has been working to keep the state’s recreational areas operating in the wake of ongoing budget cuts.

Users now pay higher fees to visit many of the spaces. Some parks are open fewer hours, and officials are increasingly relying on partnerships to cover costs.

The latest agreement, forged with the Hopi Tribe, will allow the state to reopen Homolovi Ruins State Park near Winslow on Friday. The park, which encompasses seven ancestral Hopi pueblos that were occupied from roughly 1260 to 1400, has been closed since February 2010.

Officials are cheering the partnership, which will keep Homolovi open for at least one year. But they acknowledge that big challenges still face the parks system.

“We don’t know when or if things are going to turn around,” said Renee Bahl, executive director of Arizona State Parks. “The partnerships are fantastic, but they are not long-term solutions.”

Arizona is not the only state struggling amid budget deficits. Colorado, California, Utah and Idaho are grappling with the same challenges.

“This is the new reality,” said Roy Stearns, director of communications for California’s state parks system. “All of (us) have to look at different ways to fund and sustain parks into the future.”

Shuttering a state park does more than simply close a site of beauty or historical significance to residents or visitors, parks’ officials said. It creates a negative ripple effect on the local economy, such as that of one of the many small or rural towns that rely on the tourist dollars the parks bring into their communities.

Arizona’s system

The Arizona parks system, which is composed of 30 parks, consistently draws more than 2 million visitors a year. Total visitation for 2010 was down slightly because officials reduced hours at some facilities and closed others after the state slashed funding in December 2009.

The parks system now receives no general-fund revenue. It had been receiving up to $9 million a year before the budget cuts, Bahl said.

The cuts had threatened to close more than a dozen parks last year, but officials worked to get financial commitments from counties and community groups to temporarily keep several of them open. For example, Tubac Presidio State Historic Park is being operated in conjunction with Santa Cruz County and the Tubac Historical Society. McFarland State Historic Park is being operated by the town of Florence and the Florence Main Street project, a non-profit tasked with improving the local economy.

Under the agreement forged with the Hopi, the state will continue to operate Homolovi, but the tribe will pay $175,000 to help operate the park, a contribution that will help employ parks staff. The deal includes an option to renew the agreement for two additional years.

When Homolovi reopens, only Oracle State Park in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, Lyman Lake State Park in northeastern Arizona, and San Rafael State Natural Area near the Arizona-Mexico border will still be closed. Bahl said she is hopeful that an agreement will be in place to reopen Lyman during the summer.

Arizona’s parks generated between $9 million and $9.5 million in revenue each of the past three years.

A study released earlier this year suggested that the system could operate more efficiently if the private sector took over part of its operations and if a quasi-public agency managed it. But the report recommended against privatizing the entire system, in part because some state parks are operated via leases with the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management.

Similar challenges

Other states also are following Arizona’s lead and cutting visitor hours, reducing services or turning to partnerships to keep their parks systems afloat. Some are considering other ideas for raising money.

California has recently relied on private corporations to cover the costs of capital projects and other upgrades at its recreation areas. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and Stater Bros. supermarkets, for example, helped raise money to replant more than 1 million trees scorched by wildfires in state parks near San Diego and in San Bernardino County.

Utah has increased fees and reduced services, and Washington is trying to consolidate parks management. Colorado, which has raised park fees and reduced operating hours, may close parks and allow oil and gas drilling in certain parks.

“For better or worse, we are at the forefront of this issue,” Bahl said. “We were hit the hardest and quickest in terms of losing resources for state parks. We had to immediately adjust our expenditures. We didn’t have the opportunity or luxury of thinking of a long-term solution.”

Reopening Homolovi

Homolovi, which is on 4,000 acres on a vast floodplain, has cultural and religious significance for the Hopi Tribe.

More than 9,000 Hopis live on a 1.6 million-acre reservation 65 miles north of the park, which was established in 1986. The state and the tribe have worked together for the past month to six weeks to spruce up the park for its grand reopening.

Visitors can learn about the Hopi’s ancient culture, watch demonstrations of their crafts and purchase works made by Hopi artists.

Hopi Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa said he hopes those who come will leave with a better understanding of the Hopi people and culture.

“We want people to know that the Hopi people are a real, true culture that is existing in the United States,” Shingoitewa said.

Hopi tribe donation reopens Homolovi ruins for visitors

[Source: Jim Cross,]

Photo from Arizona State Parks.

Another one of Arizona’s state parks that has been closed because of the budget crisis is set for its grand reopening on March 18.

The Hopi tribe paid the state to reopen Arizona’s first archaeological state park, says Arizona State Parks Director Renee Bahl. “We entered into a very special agreement with the Hopi tribe – the first of its kind – where the tribe is paying us to reopen the park. They’re paying our operating costs there to the tune of $175,000 for 12 months.”

The Homolovi ruins, near Winslow, are home to ancestral Hopi villages.

At one point two-thirds of Arizona’s parks were on the chopping block and now only two remain closed – Lyman Lake near St. Johns and Oracle in the Tucson area.

“Lyman Lake is closed but we are working on an agreement with the county to reopen it this summer. For the cities and counties, in particular, it’s really important to have those parks open to the local economy,” says Bahl.

She says the March 18 reopening of Homolovi Park will feature lectures, traditional Hopi dances and you can learn much more about the history of the Hopi tribe.