Legislature ‘Robbed’ Dying State Parks

Morrison Institute study on plight of system lauds Payson, concludes some parks “might not survive”

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Tom Brossart/ Roundup

The best-known tourist attraction in Rim Country draws nearly 100,000 visitors annually to gawk at the 400-foot-long tunnel dissolved where Pine Creek flows through a massive wall of travertine.

Inadequate, inconsistent state funding has “robbed” state parks and threatens their survival without a change in management and new sources of funding, concluded the Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

The statewide report released last week cites Payson’s attempt to rescue the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park as one example of the new partnerships needed to save the 32-site, 64,000-acre state system.

“The situation cannot continue,” the report concluded. “Either stable, sufficient funding must be found to sustain Arizona’s state park system going forward or parts of the system will not be able to survive.”

By coincidence, the state parks system this week announced that starting on Nov. 19, Tonto Natural Bridge State Park will open five days a week. All summer long, the park opened just on weekends — and that was thanks only to Payson’s agreement to cover part-time ranger salaries.

Tonto Natural Bridge will open Thursdays through Mondays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The historic lodge will remain closed for the present, however, due to continued “internal structural problems.”

The state parks board had originally closed the entire park to undertake repairs on the roof of the 100-year-old lodge, after leaks threatened to cause structural damage.

The town of Payson then intervened and talked the parks system into reopening the 183-foot-tall natural travertine arch on weekends, with financial support from the town.

The best-known tourist attraction in Rim Country draws nearly 100,000 visitors annually to gawk at the 400-foot-long tunnel dissolved where Pine Creek flows through a massive wall of travertine. Inside the grotto-like cavern, a rain-like patter drops from the soaring ceiling, creating an other-worldly feel. Visitors to the bridge pump an estimated $3.6 million into the local economy.

The strong benefits, sketchy funding and mounting financial problems of Tonto Natural Bridge mirror the even more serious problems of the whole system, concluded researchers from the Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

The legislature has raided every fund set up to finance state parks and to provide grants for park construction and open space in recent years — including fees paid by park visitors. As a result, the system now teeters on the brink of collapse, the researchers concluded.

The system needs $40 million to $44 million annually to sustain itself, but has now been reduced to about $27 million in all the various funds, concluded the report.

Arizona’s system draws about 2.3 million visitors annually. But poor funding, a lack of marketing and the diversion of most maintenance funds has rendered it one of the least visited, underfunded state park systems in the nation.

Arizona’s state parks total about 10 acres per 1,000 population, compared to an average of 46 nationwide.

Moreover, the state parks get .4 visits per capita, compared to a national average of 2.5. However, the report noted that the visitation number is distorted because the state has no parks in Maricopa County, which contains nearly two-thirds of the state’s population.

Maricopa County’s park system gets 700,000 visitors annually and Phoenix’s South Mountain Park gets 2 million — almost as much as the entire state park system.

Despite the poor funding and attendance, the state parks system provides a significant boost to the economy — especially in rural areas.

The state parks system supports about 3,000 jobs. The 15 recreation-oriented parks, including Tonto bridge, generate $156 million in economic activity. The nine historic sites generate $35 million and the seven conservation-oriented parks generate $32 million, most of it from Kartchner Caverns.

Overall, outdoor recreation represents a $5 billion chunk of the Arizona economy. Such nature- and outdoor-oriented tourism looms especially large in the state’s economically hard-pressed rural areas, like Rim Country.

Generally, the people who bring their wallets and sense of wonder to state parks represent a sought-after market. About 43 percent of the visitors to state parks come from out of state and another 7 percent from other countries. The average visitor is white and 53, with an income of $50,000.

Overall, the state spends less than one-tenth of a percent of its state budget on its parks system, which makes it 43rd in the nation, the report concluded. The budget works out to about $4.21 per state resident, compared to national average of $10.55.

Almost every park in the system spends more than it takes in, with a few notable exceptions.

Kartchner Caverns, developed with entrance fee money from the other parks, now has net revenue of $2.51 per visitor — the highest in the system. Cattail Cove and Buckskin Mountain campgrounds on the Colorado River make between 9 and 97 cents per visitor. Slide Rock in Sedona makes about 87 cents per visitor. Catalina in Tucson makes 90 cents per visitor. Lake Havasu and Lost Dutchman state parks make 2 or 3 cents per visitor.

The rest of the parks all lose money on their operations.

Tonto bridge loses about 56 cents per visitor, although it was not immediately clear whether those calculations took into account a recent fee increase nor the decline in visitation spurred by this summers two-day-a-week operation.

Overall, state parks lose about 1.29 cents per visitor, not counting the money-making Kartchner. To a large extent, that average reflects the high per-visitor cost of running the parks intended to protect historical sites or provide environmental education.

The report concluded with an examination of ways in which the parks could raise more money or ensure stable funding.

The researchers concluded that the repeated legislative sweeps of park funds has left the parks board with little control and the system “starved” for money to keep everything from falling apart. The bill for deferred maintenance now tops $200 million, with some parks forced to close as a result of dangerous deterioration.

Potential funding sources considered included a state endowment, a voluntary fee for special license plates, an income tax check-off, a dedicated sales tax, partnering with local entities to sell bonds for expansion, a tax on tobacco products, development fees, surcharges on tourism-based revenue like room taxes, fund-raising and partnerships with cities and towns.

However, the researchers noted that in recent years, the legislature has repeatedly diverted to the general fund even taxes earmarked for parks and open space by voters, including lottery funds, boat gas taxes and money from the sale of state trust land.

“Arizona’s state parks are in trouble. Even before the state’s current budget woes, the state parks system was one of the least funded in the U.S. In Arizona, accounting games have robbed the system of even its own revenues. Virtually no money has been available for capital improvement projects, like restoration and preservation, for nearly a decade.”

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