Friday, 01 January 2010 00:00    E-mail
Arizona's State Parks struggle for survival

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If someone offered you an investment with a guaranteed 10-fold payoff, would you invest? That’s sort of the deal that is being proposed by Governor Brewer’s Task Force on Sustainable State Parks Funding. The task force released its report Oct. 30, and one of the primary recommendations is creating a Sustainable State Parks Fund, which would be financed by an optional $14 to $15 annual contribution that would be collected from owners of noncommercial vehicles as part of the registration process.

The proceeds should be about $40 million annually if only half of Arizona’s population opts to participate, the Task Force projects. The funds would be dedicated to the operation, maintenance and capital needs of the State Parks. In return, the task force proposes, private vehicles with Arizona license plates would be admitted free to state parks. About 2.3 million people visit Arizona’s State Parks annually.

A 2007 study conducted by Northern Arizona University reported an annual economic impact of $266 million for the counties and cities where state parks are located. Additionally, tourist expenditures generated more than $22.7 million in state and local taxes each year. Not a bad return on a taxpayer investment of about $40 million.

No question, State Parks make money for local communities as well as boosting state coffers. The State Parks budget, however, is frequently one of the first to be pilfered by legislatures looking to balance an upside down state budget.  “When the state has run into budget deficits, as in 2003 and 2009, the money accumulated for park improvements has been swept away to help balance the state budget,” the Task Force members wrote in their report to the Governor.

The Parks system has had no operating fund increase since 2002 and hasn’t had a meaningful capital budget since 2003. In fiscal 2009, State Parks had an operating budget of $26 million. The 2010 budget has been slashed 27 percent, to $19 million. As Earth Odyssey was going to press, the state legislature was contemplating reductions and sweeps of $9.2 million from conservation funds such as the State Parks gate fees, donations, State Lake Improvement Fund and Heritage Funds.

“If this bill passes we would need to reduce staff by approximately 75 of our remaining 218 employees and that step would force park closures,” said Reese Woodling, the Arizona State Parks Board Chairman. “Also, these cuts are based on the Parks being open and earning over $8 million from gate fees, which will not happen with Parks closed.”

“The State Parks system is in imminent danger of complete collapse as a result of financial starvation during most of this decade,” authors of the Task Force report wrote. “The current system of erratically funding state parks in Arizona is broken in both good and bad times. It must change or our parks will not survive.”

Jerome-web4Thus far, three parks—Jerome, McFarland and Oracle—have been closed and nine others have five-day schedules—Fort Verde State Historic Park, Homolovi Ruins State Park, Red Rock State Park, Riordan Mansion State Historic Park, Slide Rock State Park, Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, Tubac Presidio State Historic Park and Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park. Staff has been reduced and almost 40 percent of Parks positions are vacant.

After detailed analysis, the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University determined that the State Parks Board should have an operating budget of $30 to $34 million to operate the existing system—a far cry from the $19 million currently allocated.

Additionally, the Parks System has upwards of $150 million of unmet capital needs that have been identified.

“Given today’s circumstances, the State Parks system is not physically or financially sustainable,” the Task Force reported. “The plight of the State Parks will be solved only by providing a reliable source of funding to address accumulated capital needs and systems operations.”

fort-verde-web4A few of the critical needs include:

• Adobe walls at the Douglas Mansion in Jerome and the old McFarland Courthouse in Florence have failed.

• The roof on the lodge at Tonto Natural Bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was compromised by leakage to such a degree that the structural integrity of the whole building was threatened.

“The state must reverse course and provide the means to maintain, invest, promote and build the parks system,” the task force reported.

Arizona’s state parks system was created in 1957—the last of the contiguous 48 states to create a state park system. The parks are divided into the four regions: Western, Northern, Eastern and Southern. But don’t expect to find any state parks in Phoenix and the surrounding areas. Maricopa County operates its own park system. Thirty state parks, along with nine historical sites, are in the state parks system today.

The state park system includes recreation sites, natural conservation areas and historical and cultural resources. (See story on Homolovi Ruins State Park in the September 2009 issue of Earth Odyssey.)

HomoloviRuins-web4Arizonans value natural beauty, open spaces and water resources. In a Gallup Poll commissioned by the Center for the Future of Arizona, the state’s natural beauty and open spaces are seen by citizens as Arizona’s greatest asset. Arizona landscapes matter—on both economic and emotional levels.

It’s important that growth and development in the future respect the passion that citizens feel for their environment.

In the Gallup telephone poll, people were asked to rate the city or area in which they live on 14 different features that are important to quality of life. The two highest scoring areas were “Beauty or physical setting” (47 percent) and “Availability of outdoor parks, playgrounds and trails” (44 percent).

sliderock-web4These are the kinds of assets that are protected by the state parks system. The proposed optional fee added to annual vehicle registration is not enough, the report’s authors write, to help the parks system deal with pressures of future population growth, but it will pay for the annual operation, plus provide a reasonable amount to tackle some of the unmet capital needs within five or six years.

State park users would still pay for camping, boat launches and other special services offered by thedifferent parks, although the entrance fee would be waived under this proposal.

“The Task Force believes that the vast majority of Arizonans will embrace this proposal as a fair and necessary solution,” the authors summarize.

The next step in the policy process, said Paul Senseman Director of Communications Office of Governor Janice K. Brewer, is for the legislative branch to contemplate the Task Force’s report and promote further discussion about the fiscal challenges in Arizona’s State Parks and about the proposed long-term solutions.

The State Parks office did not return queries, either by e-mail or telephone, for this story.