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.

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