Paying for the Great Outdoors 

Thanks to support from towns and companies, most of Arizona's state parks remain open—at least for now

Men in blue-and-gray uniforms line up, facing another row of men clad in darker gear. Each man carries a weapon—like a vintage musket, with a long bayonet attached. The men hoist the eight-pound guns to their shoulders and brace themselves; there is a bang, and a cloud of smoke erupts into the air.

The annual Civil War re-enactment at Picacho Peak occurs each March, replaying the events that occurred there 148 years ago. However, this tradition might be in danger, as the future of the state parks system becomes increasingly uncertain.

On Jan. 15, the Arizona State Parks Board voted to close the majority of Arizona's state parks—including Picacho Peak. Since then, however, communities, businesses and other organizations have stepped forward with money, and as a result, all but four state parks remain open, according to the Arizona State Parks website (azstateparks.com).

One of the closed parks is Oracle State Park. But Picacho Peak remains open, in part because of $20,000 raised by the city of Eloy.

However, the future of Arizona's state parks system will largely depend on what the Legislature does next year.

The Legislature, facing an unprecedented budget shortfall, jeopardized state parks by taking away several million dollars of general-fund money and sweeping the parks' $54 million "savings account." This money came from years of setting aside money from user fees that range between $5 and $10 per vehicle; the goal of those fees was a self-sustainable parks system.

"Our financial resources left no option but to close some parks, reduce days of operations at others, eliminate many worthy statewide programs and discontinue grant cycles, which support our statewide system of parks," said Renée Bahl, executive director for Arizona State Parks, in a statement.

The closure of state parks would mean a serious financial hit to some of Arizona's rural economies. In fact, state parks were created so that tourists would want to go beyond Arizona's larger cities, said Ellen Bilbrey, a public information officer for Arizona State Parks.

According to an economic study done by Northern Arizona University's Arizona Hospitality Research and Resource Center, direct spending by Arizona State Parks visitors totaled almost $163 million in fiscal year 2007—with much of that going to grocers, gas stations, hotels and mechanics in nearby communities.

"As long as the park is open, it is generating tourism," Bilbrey said. "If you get 10,000 people a year, that is 10,000 people in a tiny, little town with very few restaurants and very few stores. It's critical to never close (the parks). That's the point—to keep the engine generating visitation."

While communities, businesses and other organizations have stepped up to keep most parks open for now, it's not a long-term solution.

"Right now, fewer of the parks are closed—not because of anything that the Legislature did, but because people stepped up throughout the state," said Sandy Bahr, of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. "However, many of these (arrangements) are short-term fixes and will not maintain and protect the resources."

These temporary measures do give the state time to find other funding mechanisms. The only problem: It's unclear whether the conservative Arizona Legislature will be willing to consider any other funding mechanisms.

The Sustainable State Parks Task Force, a group of individuals chosen by Gov. Jan Brewer and her predecessor, Gov. Janet Napolitano, researched how other states funded their parks systems and assessed how such methods might work in Arizona. The funding options used by other states included higher user fees, surcharges on tourism, and royalties from resource development.

Chief among the task force's recommendations was a new, nominal fee added to vehicle registrations.

"This fee would have generated enough money to continue operating the parks," said Rich Dozer, head of the task force. "It wouldn't have allowed for renovations, but at least (the parks) would maintain operation."

However, a bill to enact that fee died during the last legislative session.

"We had people contact the speaker of the House and several representatives, trying to get any of them to either pull the bill from the committee ... or at least give it a hearing," Bahr said. "They kept raising concerns about the bill, but one way to work on a bill is to at least hear it."

There's one other option for Arizona's parks: privatization.

Warren Meyer, a representative for Recreation Resource Management, a company that leases state-park land, says it makes sense for companies such as his to have more involvement in the Arizona State Parks system.

"The state parks do a lot of heritage work, preservation, horticulture and more that I can't do. I don't have any of the knowledge or resources to do any of that," Meyer said. "But we do hire people who are qualified to pick up trash. ... That shouldn't be the responsibility of well-trained professionals."

However, many within the parks system don't like the idea of privatization, saying that parks should continue to be public amenities, controlled by the government for the people of Arizona.

Although the future of the state parks system seems rather bleak, Bahr does see a silver lining.

"The positive outcome is that this brought a lot of people together in parks' communities," Bahr said. "Whether it is the people out in Apache Junction working to keep Lost Dutchman open, up in Sedona at Red Rock, or Tubac Presidio, people really stepped up and continue to step up to do their part. This has made everyone aware of the need of finding a dedicated funding source."

View Which Arizona State Parks are open? in a larger map

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