As Arizona State budget cuts peaked several years ago it seemed almost certain that the gates to numerous state parks would close and remain padlocked for the foreseeable future.
When the Arizona Legislature swept $8.6 million from Arizona State Parks’ budget during a special session in December 2009, the die was cast.
Thirteen parks were operating in the red. All were targeted for closure, reported The Arizona Republic.
Many parks have a substantial economic impact on their surrounding communities, even if they don’t operate at a profit, State Parks officials report.
Tubac Presidio supported four jobs and had a local economic impact of $256,377 in fiscal 2007, according to a study conducted by the Arizona Hospitality Research & Resource Center.
Lake Havasu State Park, which consistently operates in the black, supported 484 jobs and had a $34.5 million economic impact.
Cumulatively, the state parks had an economic impact of $266.4 million from July 2006 through June 2007, the study said.
Local communities and non-profit organizations banded together to keep 14 of the state’s most financially vulnerable parks open by providing more than $820,000 to the cash-strapped Arizona State Parks agency.
The Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and the towns of Payson and Star Valley are helping provide $35,000 in funding to the namesake park in Gila County.
Through a contract with Santa Cruz County, Tubac Historical Society is helping keep Tubac Presidio State Historic Park’s doors open by providing both funding and operational support.
Red Rock State Park in Sedona is being aided by Yavapai County and the Benefactors of Red Rock State Park.
All but one of the state’s other 13 parks remain open, albeit seasonally in some cases, because they take in enough revenue to stay in the black and fund their own operations.
Local authorities and non-profits say they decided to cast a financial lifeline to the more vulnerable parks because they recognize their value—their rich history, intense beauty and, perhaps most importantly, their economic impact.
Today, less than two years after major closures seemed certain, 26 of Arizona’s 27 state parks are open, although many have abbreviated schedules.
Some, such as Picacho Peak and Lyman Lake state parks, are on seasonal calendars. Others, such as Jerome State Historic Park and Fort Verde State Historic Park, are on five-day schedules. Still others switch between opening for seven days during their peak season and five days during their shoulder season.
Only one, Oracle State Park, remains closed indefinitely, although others, such as Homolovi State Park near Winslow, Lyman Lake State Park, just south of St. Johns, and Jerome State Historic Park were closed in the past.
They reopened thanks to partnerships developed between the state parks agency and support groups and local communities that provide either funding, staffing, or both.
Funding agreements are in place for 13 state parks that either faced closure in 2009 or 2010 or were already closed.
One park, Boyce Thompson Arboretum remains open because of a longstanding agreement with the University of Arizona and the non-profit Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum Inc.
The Yuma Territorial Prison was set to close in March 2010, but a fundraiser brought in $70,000 in 60 days, allowing the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area to keep it open.
Under the partnerships, parks get various levels of support.
Of the 13 slated for closure, eight operate with State Parks staff and five rely on partners to largely fund and operate the park. In total, those partnerships’ agreements will provide $391,800 this fiscal year.
Although the partnerships offer a temporary fix, Bahl said, they are not sustainable over the long term because local authorities are strapped and they are providing the bare minimum needed to keep the gates open.
“These cities and counties don’t have funding in perpetuity for this,” Bahl said. “In Yavapai County, this was a three-year agreement for three of the parks (Fort Verde, Jerome, and Red Rock). There’s one more year left in that agreement. Then, essentially, there’s no money. Arizona State Parks needs a long-term solution to keep our park system viable.”
In addition, the money is just a Band-Aid solution, said Ellen Bilbrey, a spokeswoman for Arizona State Parks.
“Many of these agreements are really filling in the blanks because we cut our overhead costs so much,” Bilbrey said. “That number reflects us barely hanging on.”
“The good news is, the parks are open for the public, and the parks continue to be the economic engines in these rural communities. The bad news is, these are short-term solutions. They are not sustainable. “These are state parks. They should be operated by the state.”
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