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On the verge of collapse

Some 50 miles from the state Capitol, Mitzi Rinehart stands in the shadow of a rock formation jutting from a golden carpet of late-spring wildflowers. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Some 50 miles from the state Capitol, Mitzi Rinehart stands in the shadow of a rock formation jutting from a golden carpet of late-spring wildflowers. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Though she’d rather be leading nature hikes through Lost Dutchman State Park, the former librarian has found herself leading fundraising efforts for a parks system that by all accounts is hanging on like a brittle mesquite branch in a summer monsoon storm.

“I will get as involved as I need to be to keep the parks open,” said Rinehart, who has written the state parks system into her will. “I’ve always said, ‘Don’t bitch about it. Do something.’”

Lost Dutchman is the closest state park to the concrete and glass confines of the Capitol building, where the budget slashing began in December and continued in March as part of a fix to the state revenue shortfalls.

The victim: The majority of Arizona’s state parks. The devastating budget cutbacks mean that on July 1, the agency will only have enough money to operate nine of its 30 parks.

Agreements with rural municipalities, frightened by the prospect of losing the economic benefits of having a state park nearby, will keep many of those remaining 21 parks temporarily open with local money, even though municipal budgets were hit just as hard as the state’s during the past two years of recession.

But the long-term outlook is bleak.

Parks advocates say that if the state doesn’t create a fund that would be immune to legislative sweeps in times of financial crisis, the system could fail completely or be held together – as is the case now – by a temporary patchwork of local governments and resources.

‘ON THE VERGE OF COLLAPSE’

A bipartisan task force that studied the parks system’s long-term outlook last year didn’t mince words.
“Arizona parks are crumbling before our eyes, and the entire system is on the verge of collapse,” the task force reported late last year.

The task force suggested Arizona State Parks needs more than $150 million to repair deteriorating infrastructure. For instance, historic buildings like Jerome’s Douglas Mansion are crumbling, adobe walls at McFarland Courthouse in Florence are failing, and water and sewer systems at all parks are under orders by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to be modernized.

Those capital needs aside, the agency doesn’t have the minimum day-to-day cash to operate all of its parks. The report says State Parks needs at least $30 million to run its system.

That report was issued before December’s special legislative session that swept $8.6 million from the parks system. In March, the Legislature again took money from the parks – about $3.9 million – to help balance the budget.

“Dec. 17 was like Black Monday for the Parks Board,” said longtime rancher and board Chairman Reese Woodling, who compared the December special session cuts to the 1987 worldwide stock markets crash. “They are just strangling us. It looks like the squeeze is getting tighter, and it’s going to be tougher and tougher to run a state parks system.”

At the beginning of 2009, the agency’s operating budget was nearly $26 million; two years later, the fiscal 2011 spending plan is $12.5 million.

Attorney Grady Gammage, Jr., a task force member and co-author of the Morrison Institute’s “The Price of Stewardship, the future of Arizona’s State Parks,” said state parks funding has been starved for most of the past decade.

The physical deterioration of many state parks and the seemingly arbitrary amputation of parts of the parks system – one park closes here, another park closes there – might be enough to finally kill the whole system someday, he said.

“There is a huge risk that if most of the system is shut down, it may not survive. It may not be reopened,” Gammage said. “There is a real risk in the current political climate that having once shut it down as being an unnecessary frill – unless the composition of Legislature changes, unless the economy dramatically changes, unless we redo our tax structure – it’s never going to get put back.”

FAILED FUNDING MEASURES

State Parks was doomed on both sides of the political aisle last session.

Two measures – one largely opposed by Republicans; a second by Democrats – failed to gain traction, and issues such as health care and children’s services took priority over parks.

The first attempt to save the parks system was a measure that would have added a $12 fee on motor vehicle registrations. In exchange for the extra cost, entry fees at state parks would have been waived for drivers with Arizona license plates. HCR2040 would have needed voter approval in November and would have created a special voter-protected fund for the parks system.

But voters never got the chance.

The measure was held in the House Appropriations Committee by Rep. John Kavanagh. And for that reason, the Fountain Hills Republican has become enemy No. 1 to parks supporters, who marshaled e-mail and lobbying campaigns begging him to free up the bill for a hearing.

Kavanagh brushed aside the lobbying efforts as being selfish and form-letter driven. He said he believed the mandatory motor-vehicle fee was unconstitutional, which was backed by legislative legal staff opinion. Secondly, he said, it would have amounted to a tax increase.

“Users fees should be imposed upon users. There is no connection between registering a car or truck and going to a state park,” he said.

As a sort of olive branch, Kavanagh offered a bill that would have allowed motorists to voluntarily donate to state parks. That measure also failed in the Senate by a deadlocked 14-14 vote.
“So now the parks have nothing. The so-called parks advocates, opponents of my voluntary contribution, (would have received) several million dollars in revenues,” he said. “Now it’s lost and you may have parks closures because they opposed this bill.”

Another bill, H2060, would have diverted $35 million from the Land Conservation Fund to state parks. But in the waning days of the 49th Regular Session, any hope of passing the bill receded like snowpack in Arizona’s high country.

A majority of Democrats, including Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, said the diversion of the voter-protected Land Conservation Fund to the parks system would have been unconstitutional. Besides, she said, the Republican-crafted budget that passed earlier in the year already swept that money to help close the state’s revenue shortfall.

RURAL IMPACT

A Northern Arizona University study in 2007 pegged the economic impact of the state parks’ 2.3 million visitors at $266 million annually.

The study took into account all fees and in-park expenses, as well as visitors’ spending on retail, recreation, lodging and dining outside the parks. It also factored jobs that support those visitors and the tax impact from their visit.

There are no state parks in Maricopa County, so the economic benefits of the parks affect mostly rural communities outside the population center of the state.

That’s why many private donors and rural communities, despite also experiencing depleted coffers due to the economic downturn, are diverting their precious money to keep some parks operating day-to-day.

For instance, Payson plans to spend $75,000 to keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open through the summer.

Town leaders say the park’s roughly 90,000 visitors annually are critical to feeding tourism in the Rim Country. The Payson Chamber of Commerce estimates people who visit the 183-foot natural travertine bridge pump $3.5 million annually into the region.

“Once they come up here, it’s not just a one-time trip,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans. “It’s not within the town of Payson. In fact, there are other towns closer to it – Pine and Strawberry as an example – but it impacts the entire community of northern Gila County.”

But like many parks, its long-term future is uncertain. After local money runs out on Sept. 27, it’s unclear whether Arizona State Parks will have the budget to keep it open.

And in what is expected to be a slow economic recovery, next session might not get any better for Arizona State Parks.

“The history of the park has been in good times, there has been a little money for parks. And in bad times, there’s no money for parks,” Gammage said. “Even in an economic recovery, there’s no recovery.”
Arizona State Parks operating budgets by fiscal year:
2007: $22.7 million
2008: $24.8 million
2009: $25.9 million
2010: $19.3 million
2011: $12.5 million

Parks closed (seven):

• Homolovi Ruins State Park
• Jerome State Historic Park
• McFarland State Historic Park
• Oracle State Park
• San Rafael State Natural Area
• Sonoita Creek State Natural Area
• Verde River Greenway State Natural Area
Parks scheduled to close June 3 (five):

• Alamo Lake State Park*
• Lost Dutchman State Park*
• Picacho Peak State Park*
• Red Rock State Park*
• Roper Lake State Park*
Deals are in the works to keep these parks open using private or local-government funding. These agreements could be approved at the May 19 State Parks board meeting.
Parks open and operated by Arizona State Parks (nine):

• Buckskin Mountain/River Island State Park
• Catalina State Park
• Cattail Cove State Park
• Dead Horse Ranch State Park
• Fool Hollow Lake Recreation Area
• Kartchner Caverns State Park
• Lake Havasu State Park
• Patagonia Lake State Park
• Slide Rock State Park
Parks open but funded or operated by another entity (nine):

• Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park
• Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park
• Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park
• Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park
• Tubac Presidio State Historic Park
• Fort Verde State Historic Park
• Lyman Lake State Park
• Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
• Riordan Mansion State Historic Park

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