Don’t let Legislature rob our parks

[Source: Ken Travous, Arizona Republic My Turn] – You have to hand it to a guy like Bryan Martyn, executive director of Arizona State Parks. He has a smile of confidence and a can-do attitude that you would expect of a former soldier. I would rather not be there, however, on the day he discovers that neither of those attributes will fix a collapsed sewer pipe. It won’t be long before one of his hikes finds him stepping in the goo of neglect.

It wasn’t always this way. In the mid-1980s, Gov. Bruce Babbitt found a way to partner with the Legislature to begin the process of identifying and conserving key areas with the purpose of securing them for future generations. Red Rock State Park, Slide Rock State Park, Homolovi State Historic Park and Verde River Greenway became part of the State Parks system. Soon thereafter, Babbitt and Sen. Barry Goldwater met in Barry’s backyard to announce their support for the creation of a Heritage Fund that would provide predictable funding for State Parks by tapping lottery-ticket revenue.

At about the same time, State Parks approached the Legislature with a proposal to purchase and develop what is now Kartchner Caverns State Park. The intriguing part of the story revolves around the way this development would be pursued. The Legislature in essence said, “We don’t have any money for this, but if you think it’s that important, why don’t you start acting like a business? We’ll let you keep the money you make at the gate, and you can apply it toward this new park.”

The transformation was remarkable. Parks staff began looking at ways to increase revenue to develop and operate the system. It started to talk about cost centers, revenue opportunities and return on investment.

In 1988, total revenue for the park system was about $800,000. Ten years later, it was almost $10 million. Kartchner Caverns was developed at a cost of $36 million with only a $3 million loan from the general fund needed to open the park in 1999.

Things were looking pretty good, and I guess that’s the problem. In some odd kind of way, employing some type of sideways logic, the Legislature deemed that if State Parks is getting along well, it must be out of our control. So, after 15 years of parks acting like a business, the Legislature decided to act like a government and take their money. A little bit here and there in the beginning, to test the public reaction, and then in breathtaking swaths.

Heritage Fund … gone. Enhancement fund … swiped. General fund? No way. A $250,000 bequest? Oops, they caught us; better put it back.

State Parks now has a mountainous backlog of maintenance projects all because the Legislature would rather wholly own a failure than share a success. We need to put people in the halls that care about those things that we want our children to enjoy, and a governor who will stand in the breach when the next onslaught appears.

Until then, we’ll all be stepping in the goo.

Kenneth Travous was executive director of Arizona State Parks for 23 years.

Audit: Arizona state parks need more funds, visitors

[Source: Yvonne Wingett-Sanchez, The Arizona Republic] – The future of Arizona’s state parks is at risk, a new audit says, and their long-term financial sustainability depends on expanded partnerships and marketing efforts.

An Auditor General’s Office report released Wednesday portrayed the parks system as in dire need of funding. The Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer cut funding to about $25.7 million last fiscal year from about $54.7 million in fiscal 2008, the report said. The audit also found that low and declining visitation was among the factors that pose long-term risks for the parks. Auditors recommended the Arizona State Parks Board, which manages the state’s 30 parks, continue to expand partnerships with local governments and organizations and create a new marketing campaign to showcase the parks. Auditors also said the board should study how the parks system can become more financially sustainable.

The 30 state parks cover a total of 62,000 acres, with 28 percent of the land owned by the state and 72 percent leased or under easement from federal and state entities. There are four types of parks, ranging from environmental-education parks such as Boyce Thompson Arboretum to recreation areas such as Kartchner Caverns. About 2 million people visited the state parks in fiscal 2011, the report said.

Cristie Statler, executive director of the Arizona State Parks Foundation, said the audit results were no surprise given years of deep budget cuts to parks funding by the governor and lawmakers. “They swept entrance fees, gift-shop money, donations, as well as eliminated the $10 million annual Heritage Fund allocation to state parks,” she said. Statler pointed out that, time and again, surveys say Arizonans overwhelmingly support state parks and open spaces and believe such areas add to a region’s economic health. “The only reason we have state parks open right now is because partners around the state, municipalities and non-profits, have supported … a huge number of state parks — about 19 across the state,” Statler said. “Were it not for these partnerships — I kid you not — these parks would be closed.”

In some partnerships, for example, cities will agree to share certain park expenses. Statler said she understands the need to continue to expand such partnerships but questioned auditors’ recommendation of a marketing campaign. “If you don’t have money, how can you promote the parks?” she asked. “To admonish the state parks board or direct them to continue to expand partnerships is to relinquish any state responsibility for the state’s park system.”

The audit also found:

• Arizona has one of the lowest number of park visits among Western states, and state parks compete with many national and local parks for visitors.

• The loss of state funding for park operations has created a need for the system to transition from being supplemented from state coffers to earning enough revenue to cover its own operating expenses. Historically, park revenue has not covered operating expenditures, until recently.

• The board has taken steps to increase revenue, including adding electrical hookups at campsites, an improved reservations system and a new fee schedule that charges lower fees to attract campers during the off-season and higher fees when sites are at a premium.

Kartchner Caverns hosts astronomy night


Stars shine brighter away from city lights. That’s why astronomers look for remote places to place telescopes, and why stargazing events often take place in parks away from towns.

This weekend, Arizona State Parks invites you to spend an evening with astronomer Bob Gent at Kartchner Caverns State Park near Benson.

“He’s . . . an avid astronomer. He’s done it all over the country,” assistant park manager Chris DeMille said.

This is the second year of the event. “Last time we did this, we had five telescopes. This time we’re shooting for a little bit more.”

Visitors will be able to see Jupiter, Venus, craters of the moon, stars and galaxies. Gent is a past president of the Astronomical League and the International Dark Sky Association, and other astronomers will assist him during the event.

Visitors are asked to bring a folding chair and a flashlight covered with a red cap (available at sporting-goods stores). A piece of red cellophane placed over the flashlight beam also works. The event starts before sunset so people can learn a bit about astronomy before the viewing begins. The park’s café is closed at night, so bring snacks and drinks if desired. Bring a sweater or jacket, too.

“We’re at 4,600 feet, so it’s a little more comfortable,” DeMille said.

Kartchner Caverns is known for its colorful stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws and other features. The park is at the base of the Whetstone Mountains, with views of the San Pedro Valley.

The park has two main caves open for tours, the Rotunda and the Big Room. The Big Room is open from Oct. 15 to April 15 and will be closed during this event.

Stargazers can camp at the park’s campground ($22 per night) or find a room in Benson.

Southeast Arizona has attractions in addition to the caverns.

“The city of Tombstone is about 30 minutes away from us,” DeMille said. “There’s also Ramsey Canyon, which is a nature preserve.”

Also within driving distance are Bisbee, with restaurants, galleries and a mine tour; Coronado National Memorial, with hiking trails and great scenery; and the Amerind Foundation, a museum with a top-notch collection of Native American art and artifacts near the Dragoon Mountains.

Details: Stargazing at Kartchner Caverns

When: 6:30 p.m. Sept. 11. Park hours are 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.

Where: Kartchner Caverns State Park. From central Phoenix, take Interstate 10 east past Tucson to Exit 302 at Benson. Take Arizona 90 about 9 miles south to the park entrance.

Admission: $6 per vehicle for stargazing. Cave tours, $18.95-$22.95.

Details: 520-586-4100,

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Arizona’s Parks In Peril: Kartchner Caverns State Park

[Source: Gretchen Mominee,]

Photo credit: Arizona State Parks

The volunteer leading our tour, John, tells us that being dripped on during the tour is good luck, sort of like a blessing from the cave. He says those drips are called “cave kisses.”

Kartchner Caverns is a living cave, which means that it is still in the process of becoming, still growing and changing. It is a work in progress. As you read this sentence, drops of mineral-rich water are slowly dripping from the tip of a stalactite or slipping from the end of a soda straw, a skinny hollow tube growing from the cave’s ceiling.  The stalactites and stalagmites are infinitesimally growing toward one another. The incredibly beautiful and majestic formation, Kubla Khan, continues to form.

This cave was forming long, long before the day in 1974 when two University of Arizona students, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, chiseled an opening wide enough to wriggle through and become the first human beings to ever stand inside it. Imagine the wonder of knowing that you’ve just discovered something miraculously beautiful that no one else has ever seen.

Tenen and Tufts knew they had made an incredible discovery. Because they were avid cavers and had seen the damage done to other caves by carelessness and vandalism, they kept their find a secret for a long time, eventually sharing it with the landowners. Together, they spent years ensuring that the cave would be protected, and that they could be shared with the public in a responsible way that would allow people to experience and learn about the cave without harming the fragile formations inside.

Kartchner Caverns State Park opened in 1999. It was one of the parks that Arizona legislators voted to be closed this year, despite the fact that Arizona State Parks make $260 million for the state annually. To call this decision short-sighted is an understatement.

The cave doesn’t need us. If they close Kartchner Caverns State Park and no human ever sets foot in it again, it won’t matter to the cave. Bats will continue to roost and raise their young in the Big Room. The massive 58 foot column Tenen and Tufts call Kubla Khan will still stand as a testament to what nature can do with water, minerals and tens of thousands of years. Stalactites and stalagmites will continue their inexorable journey toward one another and in time will be joined. Soda straws will grow and fall. The ghosts of the good intentions and efforts of many will linger in the cave, but the cave will be fine.

The cave doesn’t need us. But maybe we need the cave. Maybe we need the opportunity to see geologic time at play. To be able to access the fragile beauty of a place that has been forming for so long it’s almost unfathomable.

Maybe we need to be able to stand inside the cave and hear the story of two college kids who found something magical and wondrous and wanted to share it with the world in such a way that it would be available to all of us and future generations.

Maybe we need the possibility of being baptized by cave kisses, of receiving a blessing from a living cave, to be reminded that we are all, after all, works in progress.

Maybe, as John Muir wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.”

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