This Land is Your Land

Arizona's state parks are in trouble after Republican budget cuts and funding raids

Reese Woodling is worried about Arizona's state parks.

Woodling, who is completing his second stint as a member of the State Parks Board, knows Arizona's parks better than almost anyone in the state. Over his five decades in Arizona, he's been to all but one of them, and he helped bring many of them into the system, including the crown jewel, the spectacular Kartchner Caverns State Park near Benson.

But in recent years, the former rancher has watched as lawmakers have cut state general-fund dollars that were supporting the parks. He's seen them siphon away gate fees and take money from the State Lake Improvement Fund. And last year, he saw them take away the Heritage Fund lottery dollars that gave the parks $10 million a year.

"A lot of that money was for grants for trails and local parts and historical places," Woodling says. "We were giving out $6.5 million every year in grants, and they're gone. We don't have any more for grants for historic parks at all."

Woodling, 75, knows a thing or two about Arizona history. In the late '50s, he and his high-school sweetheart got married back in Ohio and then flipped a coin to decide where to move. She won the flip, and they moved to Flagstaff, where he went to work building Arizona highways, and she got a job as a teacher.

They relocated to Tucson a few years later, where Woodling joined his wife in the teaching biz. They came into some money in the mid-'70s, and he bought the 23,000-acre Cascabel Ranch along the San Pedro River; later, they purchased a larger operation in New Mexico.

In the early 1980s, Gov. Bruce Babbitt asked Woodling if he'd serve on the State Parks Board during what turned out to be a contentious period.

"It was not a good time to be on that board, but we were doing a lot of good things on the ground," Woodling explains as we drive down Interstate 19 on our way to Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. "We were adding new parks; we were fixing up the parks; we were really blowin' and goin', so it was a fun time."

After more than a decade away from the parks board, Woodling was reappointed by Gov. Janet Napolitano about six years ago. But his second stint hasn't been so fun. In 2008, the State Parks Department had $76.9 million to spend, including $7.7 million from the state's general fund. This year, the budget is down to $24.9 million, with zero dollars coming from the general fund. Indeed, the situation has been flipped: The state is taking $2 million from the parks' gate fees to support the general fund.

Many of the state parks are now open only because local communities stepped in and agreed to provide funding, fearing a loss of tourism dollars if the parks closed. The state parks staff has dropped by about one-third, from 328 full-time employees to just 205.

While the parks have at least $150 million in unmet capital needs, the department has no budget to address the repairs and improvements that need to be done.

It seems to Woodling that all of the work that he and others have put into building the parks system is vanishing before his eyes.

"To put it bluntly, I think the Legislature is trying to kill state parks as a state agency so they can privatize it," Woodling says. "That's my personal opinion. It makes me sick to my stomach."

Woodling pulls off I-19 and winds his way to Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. The 11-acre park, smack-dab in the middle of a town of quaint shops and galleries, is on the site where Spanish colonists built a presidio in the 1750s before relocating their settlement to Tucson a few decades later.

For the last year, the park has been run by the Tubac Historical Society, which took over the site so it wouldn't close because of state budget cuts.

Shaw Kinsey, president of the Tubac Historical Society, says closing the park would have been a blow to the community. It's difficult to quantify how many people come to Tubac just to see the park, but it's a vital part of the mix.

"It has to stay open," Kinsey says. "If it had a chain-link fence around it saying, 'state property: no trespassing,' it would have really been a disaster for Tubac."

Besides the ruins of the presidio—which visitors can see if they go into an underground room that features a window that looks into a slice from an archaeological dig—the park features the second-oldest schoolhouse in the state, a one-room building that dates back to 1885. (One rule spelled out on a chalkboard, borrowed from a list of California teacher regulations circa 1872: "Women who marry or engage in other unseemly conduct will be dismissed.")

There's also a museum that celebrates the rich history of the area. Exhibits are dedicated to Native American tribes which originally settled in the area, as well as the Spanish colonists and others who came later. One exhibit highlights an expedition led by presidio commander Juan Bautista de Anza II that led to the founding of San Francisco in the 1770s; another is dedicated to the Baca Float, one of Arizona's first major land scams. Visitors can also get a look at the original printing press that published Arizona's first newspaper, the Weekly Arizonian, whose debut edition hit the streets of Tubac on April 3, 1859. After the Arizonian moved to Tucson and went out of business, the press was put to work in the service of the fledgling Arizona Star.

Kinsey says that all of the historical pieces would have ended up in storage if the park had closed.

"If all these artifacts had been moved to Phoenix and mothballed, the expense of ever putting them back would have been way too much," says Kinsey.

The Tubac Historical Society has been finding ways to spruce up the park, including fresh coats of paint. Kinsey is particularly proud of a display of 16 paintings from painter William Ahrendt's Cavalcade of History collection in the park's Alan B. Davis gallery. The colorful works, including an image of Wyatt Earp slinging his gun, were originally commissioned as a series for Arizona Highways.

The new energy has created some buzz. In the first year since the changeover in mid-May 2010, more than 10,000 people have visited—a 10 percent bump from the previous year. The park is now open seven days a week, rather than just five, and instead of being staffed by just three state employees, it has a small army of more than 40 volunteers.

"It was really a brush with death, and we were able to save it," Shaw says.

The Tubac Presidio State Historic Park is considered a "cultural resource" park. The Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, Flagstaff's Riordan Mansion State Historic Park and Yuma's Territorial Prison share that status. All of these parks are designed to preserve key parts of Arizona's history and heritage, but they don't turn a profit from gate fees—and budget cuts have placed them in danger.

"These are wonderful historical parks, but they've been neglected, because we don't have capital dollars from the Legislature," Woodling says.

Tubac was actually Arizona's first state park. Arizona was one of the last states to create a state-parks system, forming it in 1957. Soon afterward, the presidio property and its related buildings were donated to the state.

The parks were created as a way to generate tourism and serve as an economic stimulus for local areas and governments.

"Each of Arizona's state parks was purchased to save the resource for future generations and as an economic engine for rural communities in the 1950s, when so much of the mining, cattle and agricultural economies were failing in Arizona," says Ellen Bilbrey, the spokeswoman for Arizona State Parks. "Rural areas needed people to buy groceries, go to restaurants and buy gas to keep their economies viable, and tourists were the logical solution."

The parks continue to generate dollars for the rural areas, according to a Northern Arizona University study released in 2009 by the College of Business' Center for Business Outreach.

The study concluded that, due in large part to indirect impacts (such as hotel rooms, local eateries and businesses frequented by out-of-state visitors), the state parks system as a whole generated more than $266 million for the state in 2007.

Those financial numbers go a long way toward explaining why rural communities have stepped up to keep their parks open.

The town of Tombstone picked up the lease on the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park for three years. The Arizona Historical Society reached a deal with the Arizona State Parks Board to take over Riordan Mansion State Historic Park for three years. The town of Payson is paying Arizona State Parks $25,000 to keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open and operational. Near Winslow, the Homolovi State Park, which is home to a collection of archeological sites from as far back as 620 A.D., has stayed open thanks to a partnership with the nearby Hopi tribe, which considers the park an important ancestral site.

Yuma Territorial Prison was staring at a probable shutdown last spring before the city of Yuma stepped up to lend support. A deal between the city and Arizona State Parks will keep the prison open with city staff, rather than state-parks staff members.

Although Yuma Territorial Prison saw its last inmate in 1909, much of the original architecture remains, and the structure stands as a history lesson for visitors and history buffs alike, says Lee Eseman, an Arizona State Parks regional manager.

"You can see how prisoners lived back then," she says. Letting the prison fold was not an option for Yuma, as city residents have been dependent on the prison to draw visitors to the city for the last decade, says Eseman.

"The citizens got on board and rallied to raise funds and support the prison," she says.

The people of Tubac did the same thing. The town's slogan is "Where History and Art Meet," so it was no surprise that local merchants were willing to kick in some dollars to keep the state park open last year, says Kinsey.

"The community was determined that we didn't want it to close, so everybody got together and proposed a deal that—merciful heavens—was accepted," says Kinsey.

But the $4 gate fee and gift-shop revenues only pay for about half the costs of keeping the park open, even with a large volunteer staff. Kinsey hopes to persuade the parks board to allow him to raise the entry fee to $5, with a new discount for seniors. He also hopes visitor numbers will pick up, which would lead to more revenue.

At a meeting in Tucson last month, parks-board members worried that these financial arrangements might soon fall victim to "partnership fatigue."

State parks director Renée Bahl knows that's a real concern. The partners have been "fantastic," says Bahl, but the arrangement "was a bridge, and there's only so long a bridge can go."

Woodling is impressed by what the Tubac community has done to improve the park, but he says these kinds of arrangements "are not sustainable."

"You can't ask Payson and Santa Cruz County to come up with $50,000 or $60,000 a year to keep a park open," he says.

From Tubac, Woodling heads south on I-19 to the edge of Nogales and crosses over onto Highway 82. Fifteen minutes later, we're at Patagonia Lake State Park. More than 100 campsites surround the lake, which was created by the damming of the Sonoita Creek.

Woodling pulls up at a campground that's under construction as Park Ranger Colt Alford comes over to greet him. Alford's fingers are stained purple from the adhesive that he's using to connect PVC pipe to improve the water supply and add electric power at the some of the campsites.

On this midweek day, the available campsites are about two-thirds full, but on the weekend, Alford expects them to sell out, at $25 per night for an electricity-equipped site. Summer is the peak season, but there are plenty of snowbirds who visit in the winter.

Recreational parks like Patagonia tend to operate in the black; the best, Lake Havasu State Park, netted about $450,000 last year. (Lake Havasu City officials tried to persuade the parks board to let them lease the lake for $50,000 last year, Woodling says; board members didn't give the proposal much thought. "What kind of idiots do they think we are?" he wonders.)

Alford wraps up his work and meets Woodling down at the marina, where they set out on a boat to travel from one end of the 2.5-mile-long lake to another. About two-thirds of the lake is a no-wake zone, and a few fishermen are out in their boats, trying to hook bass and bluegill. At the other end of the lake, water-skiers are zipping across the surface.

Alford fills in Woodling on some of the challenges facing the lake: Cows from neighboring ranches are wandering down to the edge of the water; some end up stuck in the mud and have to be "dispatched"—killed—if the staff can't pull them free. Woodling eyes the hills around the park, trying to make out where the fence should be keeping the cows off the state property.

Alford says there have been a few problems with a new online reservation service, but it's working out well, for the most part. He points out a damaged boat slip that's out of service because he doesn't have the money to repair it.

There are the ongoing problems: Campers who get drunk and out of control, and dogs that get neglected and bite visitors.

Woodling says having a ranger like Alford living on park grounds is crucial. While some outside groups have pitched lawmakers on the idea that they could run the parks better than the current staffers, one of the things these groups have shied away from is providing law-enforcement services, which the current rangers now do as part of their duties.

"Everybody who we've talked to at these various companies that want to take over some of these parks, they don't want to mess with the emergency services and the law enforcement," Woodling says. "They don't want to do any of that. They just want to take money out. They also don't want to put much in, in the way of improvements, because they know a lot of these parks are way behind in their maintenance needs."

From Patagonia, Woodling heads through Sonoita on his way to Kartchner Caverns State Park.

Woodling helped secure Kartchner Caverns for the state during his first stint on the State Parks Board. The two men who discovered the cave, Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, came to him and asked him to sign a confidentiality agreement so they could tell him about their spectacular find.

Woodling can still remember the first time he crawled through a small hole to get inside the cave—and saw the astonishing formations that have made Kartchner a draw for tourists from around the globe.

"I couldn't see much, because it was dark, and the only light I had was from my helmet, but I was blown away," Woodling says.

It was no easy task to convince state lawmakers to buy the land—more on that later—but that was just the start of the expense of developing the caverns as a "live" cave system, meaning that the caves have enough water and humidity to continue growing and sustain an ecosystem, even as tour groups move through.

Extraordinary steps were taken to ensure that opening the cave to the public would have as small of an impact on the natural wonder as possible. The tunnel that was drilled into the cavern has been sealed with multiple airtight doors. The cave is regularly "fogged" to maintain a high level of humidity. Portions of the cave are off-limits when bats are nesting (although the bat population is in decline, giving the park staff a mystery to solve). Sensors are placed throughout the cave to measure changing conditions, including how much lint is being left behind. When visitors brush up against an area they're not supposed to touch, it's marked and cleaned.

When Kartchner Caverns State Park finally opened in 1999, Arizona State Parks had invested $35 million in the project, mostly from Heritage Fund money and gate fees. State parks officials anticipated that once the park was up and running, it would generate enough revenue through ticket sales and other fees to spread funds to other parks within the system.

So far, it's paid off. Kartchner Caverns remains one of the system's biggest money-makers; this year, officials are expecting the park to earn $300,000 in net revenue (bringing in $2.2 million and shouldering $1.9 million in expenses), Bilbrey says.

But it's those funds—the so-called Enhancement Fund—that GOP state lawmakers are now dipping into so they can balance the overall state budget.

"That is our money by statute," Woodling says. "They took back the Enhancement Fund, which they gave to us under contract and the promise that we could have it for our own operation. ... They decide they don't want us to have it, so they just take it."

Woodling is angry about the swipe of the Enhancement Fund dollars, but he's even more frustrated by talk of privatizing the parks.

There are different ways of introducing privatization. Woodling says it might make sense to allow private contractors to handle some operations. He's not opposed to accepting gifts from wealthy patrons who might want to have a facility named for them. He's even open to considering long-term leases to developers who want to build hotels or guest lodges, as long as the State Parks Board has oversight of the plans.

But he draws the line at the idea of handing over an entire park to a tourist-management company that would take complete control of the land and the buildings, as some Republican lawmakers have suggested.

Under that scenario, "everything becomes private, and they can do what they want with it," Woodling says. "They can sell off the parks that don't make money. They can put houses on (park land). It would be a total disaster."

GOP lawmakers tend to be vague when they talk about how they'd like to privatize the parks, although some have suggested the idea of "bundling" a money-making park with a money-loser.

Woodling says breaking the system apart will only damage the parks that are left behind.

"The parks support each other," he says. "You're losing the continuity and long-range planning and the direction of a parks board."

Gov. Jan Brewer formed a Commission on Privatization and Efficiency last year to examine areas of government that could be handed over to the private sector. The commission's head, Arizona Department of Gaming director Mark Brnovich, released a preliminary report last September that suggested two areas of focus were parks and prisons; a report with more-specific recommendations is long overdue.

There are plenty of barriers to privatization, ranging from lease and deed restrictions to practical matters involving determining how much a private company would be expected to invest in upkeep and capital improvements.

The idea of handing over Kartchner to a private operator illustrates why privatization is such a risky proposition. Keeping a live cave system healthy requires Kartchner staff members and researchers to interact with the caverns delicately and responsibly, says Bob Casavant, science and research manager for Arizona State Parks. If Kartchner's daily operations were turned over to a third party via a financial agreement, the results could be catastrophic for the caverns and the accompanying research, Casavant says.

"I treat (Kartchner) like a patient," he says. Staff and research teams must closely monitor life, temperature and humidity within the caverns. Even routine jobs must be done by professionals, Casavant says.

"There are a number of critical, successful and routine maintenance and cave-management activities that (Arizona State Parks) undertakes to steward the cave at a level that is unprecedented in most show caves around the world," Casavant says.

To even consider using a third party to run Kartchner would be to ignore the complexities of the science that is happening within the caverns every day, he says.

"The level of science is state-of-the-art and groundbreaking. There's a decade-long learning curve," Casavant says. "You couldn't farm that out.

Woodling remembers that it was no easy task to convince conservative Republican lawmakers in the 1980s that Kartchner was worth the investment.

"It was a big breakthrough to get a very conservative Legislature, even at that time, to spend money," Woodling says.

He recalls a similar fight over the purchase of the 40-acre Slide Rock State Park in Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona. Acquiring the old peach-and-apple orchard "opened up trails in the BLM and state land and the forest up there."

Today, Slide Rock is one of the most popular parks in the system. The 2007 NAU study estimated that it generated $30 million a year in income for Coconino County, and supported 422 jobs.

Woodling found himself arguing with an Appropriations Committee chairman—"a crusty old guy who didn't want to spend any money"—about the $2 million cost of the property after Babbitt and some Northern Arizona legislators got the purchase approved.

"I remember this guy called me over and told me, 'I didn't like this from the beginning, and I don't like spending money, and I don't like Gov. Babbitt, and I don't like you, because you pushed for this park.' I said, 'Senator, this $2 million is a drop in the bucket compared to what this park is going to be worth to the state and the number of visitors who come to use Slide Rock and hike up into the trails. No matter what happens to the rest of the canyon, this 40 acres will be here for people to enjoy forever.' He just glared at me and said, 'You're a goddamned liberal; I can tell that.'"

Woodling continues: "I looked at him and said, 'It has nothing to do with liberal or conservative. It has to do with thinking ahead for this state and for my children and your children, and if you can't see that, you shouldn't be in politics.' And I walked out. I was madder than hell. But that's the kind of attitude they have up there today. It hasn't changed."

Shain Bergan contributed to this article.

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