Yes, the economy is tough, but Arizona State Parks deserve funding and support

I'm beginning to think Gov. Jan Brewer and the members of the Arizona Legislature were big fans of The Sopranos. They've whacked education, social services and even highway rest areas; this legislative family hasn't been at all hospitable.

Let's look at the Arizona State Parks system. According to the Arizona State University Morrison Institute for Public Policy, since 2003, "the Arizona Legislature and the state's governors have eroded support for state parks in reducing general-fund appropriations, 'sweeping' cash from dedicated funds and forcing the agency to survive on park-produced fees and pieces of indirect user levies, set-asides and federal dollars."

Arizona residents voted to create the Heritage Fund in 1990, providing up to $10 million a year from lottery-ticket sales to Arizona State Parks. But The Boss (Gov. Brewer) essentially said, "Fugeddaboudit!" in March, when her budget eliminated the state parks' share of the Heritage Fund.

What will become of our state parks? There's been a lot of press on this topic, including a recent story in the Tucson Weekly ("Paying for the Great Outdoors," June 24). Of the state's 31 state parks, four are closed, and six have limited schedules. Far more parks would be closed had communities and businesses not stepped in after the crushing vote to close most of them down.

The efforts are encouraging, as reported on the Arizona State Parks website (azstateparks.com), and include: The Tubac Historical Society raised $35,000 (Tubac Presidio); the City of Eloy raised $20,000 (Picacho Peak); Friends of Oracle State Park raised $50,000; and Yuma raised $70,000 (Territorial Prison).

The efforts don't end there.

Sam Jansen, a Phoenix filmmaker, created Postcards From the Parks (www.postcardsfromtheparks.org), a documentary about the state park system in crisis. The film—co-produced by friends Susan Culp, Peter Culp and Jocelyn Gibbon—will show at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, July 22, at Grand Cinemas Crossroads, 4811 E. Grant Road. After the film, a panel of experts, including Jansen, will conduct a question-and-answer session.

In the film, Susan Culp explains, "At the end of 2008, I was appointed to the governor's Sustainable State Park group, directed to look at funding solutions for Arizona State Parks." Before Culp made any decisions, she wanted to visit as many parks as possible. She joined her husband, Gibbon and Jansen, and hit the road. The four friends visited 25 parks from July through October 2009, with Jansen filming their journey.

The film blends beautiful scenery, commentary from the four friends and interviews with notables including Renee Bahl, executive director of Arizona State Parks; Jay Ziemann, assistant director of Arizona State Parks; and Jeff Williamson, president of the Arizona Zoological Society.

The film includes images of handwritten postcards to the Legislature, urging them to support the park system. Jansen says postcards will be available at the screening. "We are hoping members of the audience have something to say. We will be mailing them off to the governor, candidates and the Legislature.

"We would like to help inform people and help them get started being active. That's what has happened with our parks. People haven't been involved enough in the last 10 to 15 years. I hope that's the result of not being informed of what was happening. When you elect representatives, you assume that they are going to take good care of the state for you. Unfortunately, that's not always the way it works," says Jansen.

This is illustrated in the film, as Bahl explains that the Douglas Mansion at Jerome State Historic Park is crumbling. Footage shows the destruction, as well as a leaking roof at another park, and endangered conservation areas. "It's amazing how it's been allowed to accumulate," says Jansen. "The longer you let them be, the worse the damage has become."

Jansen says a $40 million annual budget is necessary to run the parks properly. He reports that in 2008, the budget was cut to $26 million; $19 million in 2009; and $10 million in 2010.

What's puzzling is that, Jansen says, the parks bring in much more money to the state than they cost.

Considering the lack of support from the governor and Legislature—with some notable exceptions, according to Jansen—the voices that support the parks need to be loud and feisty.

For us desert-dwellers, escapes to the forest, waterways and conservation areas are welcome respites. Hey, even Tony Soprano had to go to the lake once in a while.

More by Irene Messina

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