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.

Arizona parks rescued by communities and non-profits

[Source; Megan Neighbor, The Arizona Republic] –  In the depths of the recession, state budget cuts made it seem almost certain that the gates to manyArizonaparks would remain padlocked. But local communities and non-profit organizations have banded together to keep 14 of the state’s most financially vulnerable parks open by providing more than $820,000 to the cash-strapped Arizona State Parks agency.

For example, the Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and the towns of Payson and StarValleyare helping provide $35,000 in funding to the namesake park inGilaCounty. Through a contract with Santa Cruz County, the Tubac Historical Society is helping keepTubacPresidioStateHistoricPark’s doors open by providing both funding and operational support.RedRockState Parkin Sedona is being aided byYavapai Countyand the Benefactors of Red Rock State Park. All but one of the state’s other 13 parks remain open, albeit seasonally in some cases, because they take in enough revenue to stay in the black and fund their own operations.

Local authorities and non-profits say they decided to cast a financial lifeline to the more vulnerable parks because they recognize their value – their rich history, intense beauty and, perhaps most importantly, their economic impact. Today, less than two years after major closures seemed certain, 26 of Arizona’s 27 parks are open, although many have abbreviated schedules [to read the full article click here].

Summer’s almost over at Slide Rock State Park

[Source: Bruce Colbert, Prescott Daily Courier]

Photo Credit: Bruce Colbert/The Daily Courier

With the intensity of an Olympic swimmer, little 6-year-old “Mya” adjusted her swimming goggles, stepped to the rock ledge, and catapulted herself into the air landing about 15 feet below in a cool pool of Oak Creek.

“Yeeeah,” she shouted after popping her head out of the water.

Welcome to a typical summer day at Slide Rock State Park, located about five miles north of Sedona.

“We’ve got people coming from all over the world,” said Ellen Bilbrey, Arizona State Parks Chief Public Information Officer.

Elaine and Graham Norris traveled from England to do some touring, and found themselves this past week marveling at the red rock spires surrounding Slide Rock Park.

“We were talking to someone and said we wanted to go see Sedona, and he said, ‘You’ve got to go to Slide Rock, it’s fantastic,'” Graham said in a clipped British accent. “So here we are and he was right.”

However, out of the more than 1,000 visitors per day on weekends (about half that on weekdays) most are local Arizonans who know all about the park and its famous creek. Oak Creek is fed by a spring about seven miles upstream, and with runoff from the surrounding mountains.

But the pastoral park is not just about the creek.

“There are hiking trails that people can continue on into the Coconino National Forest. There’s rock climbing, picnicking, volleyball, shaded ramadas, fishing, bird watching, photography, a gift shop, and you can have weddings here for an incredibly low price,” Bilbrey said. “It’s like a theme park, except it’s a natural theme park.”

Made to order for nature lovers, the park also caters to history buffs.

In 1907, Frank L. Pendley settled in Oak Creek Canyon, planted vegetables and apple and pear orchards on 43 acres of creek side land, and in 1910 took ownership through the Homestead Act.

Pendley’s son, Tom, continued managing the property until 1982 when the family decided to sell it. Gov. Bruce Babbit heard about the sale, bought the property through the Arizona Parklands Foundation, and state officials opened Slide Rock State Park in 1987.

Many of Pendley’s apple trees still produce fruit; his house and cabins still stand; some of his farm equipment still works; the apple sorter still sorts; and his hand-built irrigation system still irrigates.

“We’ve got 13 different species of apples and get phenomenal apples in the fall,” Bilbrey said. “During the fall Apple Festival, if we’ve got a crop, you can pick your own heritage apples.”

Although the park is open year-round, Bilbrey said that for some people, winter is the time to go.

“If you are a photographer, the fall and winter are absolutely gorgeous,” Bilbrey said. “And there are hardly any people then.”

If you go to the park for a summer swim, Bilbrey cautions parents that there are no lifeguards on duty, but park rangers patrol the slide area on a regular basis.

“All the rangers are first responders, and I’ve never heard of a drowning in at least 15 years,” she added.

It costs $20 per vehicle to visit the park. Park hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Labor Day weekend, and then rangers shorten the hours. To get to the park from Prescott, which is about 70 miles north, drive Highway 89A north, or I-17 north and exit at SR 179 to Sedona.

To learn more about the park and its amenities, Junior Ranger program, or how to become of Friend of the Park, visit, or go to Facebook, Twitter or MySpace social networks.

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Board votes to close 21 of 30 Arizona state parks by June

[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.]