From the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Renée Bahl’s career has always been centered on the environment. She’s on her second stretch with Arizona State Parks, with a seven-year stint in-between running the Parks and Recreation Department for San Diego County.
However, the self-described “conservationist and recreationist” who has visited every state park in Arizona more than once and even hiked in the mountains of Peru to the “The Lost City of the Incas,” finds herself in a fight for the future — not for the state’s environment, but for the viability of the agency that manages a large portion of it.
Her answer is not to raise park-entrance fees again, which she says may already be getting to the point that they discourage visitors, but to position the state parks as a part of one of the state’s biggest industries, tourism.
In an Aug. 30 interview with the Arizona Capitol Times, the State Parks executive director reveals how to keep all the state parks open, why cash-strapped municipalities would pony up money to keep parks open and why she has
Dr. Seuss lithographs in her office.
Your entire career has been in public service related to the environment. Would you call yourself a conservationist?
I would call myself a conservationist and a recreationist. I think both are important to our well-being.
Between stints at the Arizona State Parks Department, you spent seven years as director of parks and recreation for San Diego County. Were the challenges different in California?
The challenges were very different, but not just because it’s California, but also because of the type of agency.
The county agency was very focused on recreation and smaller local parks, so people had a place to go close to home. Arizona State Parks is focused on parks throughout the state that are gems of the state and are designed to bring tourists in, so they come and stay in Arizona longer.
So it’s two totally different perspectives, both equally important.
What brought you back to Arizona?
Arizona State Parks, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the top state parks agencies in the nation. It’s completely unique and diverse. It was an opportunity I couldn’t let go.
Other than budget-related items, what’s the biggest challenge facing the state parks system?
For the population of the state of Arizona and the tourism in the state, we have a very small state parks system. So, budget aside, the biggest challenge for Arizona State Parks is to grow and increase our contribution to the tourism industry.
How has the number of visitors to the state parks changed during the past year?
The visitation has actually stayed pretty consistent despite some parks that have closed or where we’ve reduced hours. There’s been more interest from the general public and visitors to see Arizona state parks. So they have balanced each other out. There have been about 2.3 million visitors this past fiscal year.
Parks Board Chairman Reese Woodling called the agreements reached earlier this year to keep 23 state parks open “short-term measures.” Other than the state magically finding more money, are there any long-term solutions?
The long-term solution is a permanent funding source, and the people could decide that, not simply just the state. It could be secured through a citizens’ initiative, for instance.
Are there plans for putting it before the voters?
There’s definitely been talk. There are interest groups out there talking about a sustainable funding source for parks. Last legislative session there was a bill that would have referred it to voters, which is one step short of a citizens’ initiative. It didn’t get heard in the legislative committees, though.
Any reason why there would be resistance in the Legislature to that sort of thing?
I think there is great support for Arizona State Parks as a function, but there’s always concern with raising revenues.
Would there be any reason why the State Parks Department would be against using state-municipality partnerships to operate state parks on a long-term basis?
There’s not resistance. It’s a great short-term solution, but the fact is these are state parks that were meant to be run by the state. As helpful and wonderful as these agreements are with the municipalities, they, in most cases, don’t have the long-term resources for this. This was a stopgap measure to keep them open while we find a permanent funding source. But there’s no resistance.
Is it realistic to think that the state may just have to operate fewer state parks?
That’s what the state is doing right now, so yes that is realistic.
What about in the long-term future?
The challenge that we face is that all of our state parks came to us for a certain reason. There are land restrictions and deed restrictions, so it’s not as easy as saying we’re not going to operate “state park X” anymore. You have to look at what our requirements are as part of the deed. So it’s all part of the bigger picture of finding a solution.
So each state park has particular things that are in the deed to operate it that you have to abide by?
A recently released report by the National Parks Conservation Association characterized the future of the Grand Canyon as “at grave risk” from a mix of human-caused environmental factors and economic factors. How does State Parks balance the need to bring as many revenue-producing visitors into the state park with the need to preserve the natural settings of the park?
It is a balance for all state park agencies to preserve the resource and provide appropriate visitor amenities. We’ve done a good job in the preservation and bringing in visitors, but I think we could do a better job in adding more amenities, especially in the recreation parks.
In a contest (sponsored by Coca Cola) to win $100,000 for parks across the nation, park rangers selected Kartchner Caverns State Park as the one to encourage people to vote for. Why was that one chosen?
Well, we did survey the staff and the thought was that we’d get the most votes for Kartchner because the visitation is so high, and it is internationally known. Today we’re number nine in the nation among all parks across the nation. That’s pretty fantastic. (Editor’s Note: The online contest put on by Coca Cola, “America is Your Park,” ended on Sept. 9 with Bear Head Lake State Park in Ely, Minn., receiving the most votes and the $100,000 prize.)
Which is your favorite state park?
That’s like asking a parent their favorite child. All the state parks are my favorite. You can’t repeat the experience from one park to another.
Just last week I was in Patagonia and was able to spend two days there and meet people who were visiting the park. Tomorrow I head to Lyman Lake and from there to Fool Hollow the next day.
How many of the state parks have you had the chance to visit?
All of them, more than once.
My understanding of state park funding is that some state parks that are visited heavily pay for other parks that have very few visitors. If that is the way it works, is there still justification to spend money on keeping all the state parks open?
It is justifiable to want a sustainable state parks system regardless of what an individual park brings in, in terms of revenue. Our history is just as important as our recreation. All of our state parks are here for a reason, and we need to take a hard look if that represents the state of Arizona, and not by the bottom line.
We’re a government agency — Arizona State Parks was not designed simply to make a profit. We were designed to offer amenities to the public and to bring tourism to the state. Economic impact is more what we need to look at rather than the gate fees we bring in.
Do you feel like there’s a way to make more of the parks self-sustainable with gate fees or other recreational fees people pay?
We just raised our fees in the spring, the Parks Board did, and we’re probably at the tipping point now of generally risking losing visitation. I think what’s more important than looking at the sustainability of State Parks proper is looking at the economic impact it brings in throughout the state.
When you close a park, you’re not just looking at the gate fees lost for that park, but all the people who would have come to that rural community and spent their money.
Is the economic impact that the state parks have on the communities around them one of the chief concerns of the State Parks Department?
It’s one of our top concerns, to keep parks open and operating for the public, which includes the local communities. That’s why all of these cities and counties and nonprofits contributed dollars to keep the state parks open, even if it’s short term, because the loss to their local economy far exceeded the amount of money they had to put in to help us break even.
The Parks Board’s priority is to keep parks open and operating for the public, which includes the local economy. Arizona State Parks could be a significant part of the solution to get Arizona out of our current recession. Arizona State Parks brings in tourism. We can increase tourism and have more money spent, which brings in more tax dollars.
What else is your office responsible for besides state parks?
The Arizona State Parks department has had many programs added other than state parks since its inception in 1957. Our agency is also federally charged with writing the Outdoor Recreation Plan for Arizona. We oversee the State Historic Preservation Office, the state trails system, the Off-Highway Vehicle Program, and many state conservation grants from federal and state fund sources that are distributed to rural communities. That amount used to be $32 million per year. We are also the third-largest statewide law enforcement agency in Arizona.
You have refused to comment publicly about an incident in 1999 when a parks employee witnessed you carve your name into an historic adobe structure controlled by the Parks Department. Do you have any comment about that now?
It’s something that happened a long time ago. I regret what I did, and I have said that publicly.
The more important story of San Rafael is that while it is not open to the public right now, we are working very closely with one of the ranchers who has his cattle down there. Some day in the future, I hope we are able to open that whole resource for the public to see.
What will characterize your tenure as State Parks director?
Having Arizona State Parks as part of the solution in what will likely be one of the worst recessions, and forging new partnerships that we didn’t have before.
The fact that these cities and counties that don’t have any excess money right now would step in and provide financial solutions is unprecedented. We’re one of the first and maybe only state agencies that has gone this far to find solutions for the public.
UpCloser with Renée Bahl
Do you prefer tent camping or trailer camping?
Have you ever hunted or fired a rifle?
You said earlier you enjoy hiking. What the coolest hike you’ve ever been on?
Counting anywhere, it would be the Inca Trail in Peru. I hiked a couple of years ago up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Do you have a favorite hike in Arizona?
When I stay local and don’t want to travel a lot, I like to hike at South Mountain, which is a city park. Some of the most spectacular hikes are at Lost Dutchman State Park.
You have a couple of Dr. Seuss lithographs on your office walls. Are you a fan?
The picture I have is the Lorax and the Truffula trees. These colorful wooly trees support wonderful creatures. The Lorax is one that speaks for those that don’t have a voice, like the Truffula Trees. Whomever speaks up for State Parks are like the Lorax.