Parks Board Still Dreams Of The Future

Session in Rim Country focuses on how to survive a 30 percent budget cut and hopes for the future

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Tom Brossart/Roundup

Visitors to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park make their way through the rock following Pine Creek to the bridge itself.

Get through the beating.

But don’t stop dreaming.

That could serve as the motto of the Arizona State Parks system, reflected recently at a rare retreat and strategy session that brought the board to one of its most endangered treasures: Tonto Natural Bridge.

The state parks board finds itself in the position of a scrawny kid getting punched out by a bully after his lunch money. The system is bruised, bloody and curled into the fetal position — but still making plans for college.

The world’s largest natural travertine arch formed an apt setting for the discussion, since the park system’s partnership with Payson to keep the Rim Country’s best known tourist attraction open served as a model to save other parks.

As a result of the last-minute rescues by Payson and other counties and towns, the state parks board approved agreements to keep most of the sites in the 28-park system open — despite drastic reductions in its budget.

“We have the maximum we’re going to have for the next two years,” said newly appointed director Renee Bahl. Her appointment in the midst of the collapse of the system was the bureaucratic equivalent of like being promoted to command the British Army in the middle of Dunkirk.

“We’ve got bits and pieces of this crumbling system to get us through the next two years. The question is: Can we just stay alive through 2012? To do that, we’ve got to pick a direction and start working towards it.”

“They’ve already taken everything,” said board member Walter Armer, referring to the Legislature. “Our message should be: For God’s sake, don’t take anything more.”

In the past three sessions, the Legislature has swept a total of $71 million that would have gone to state parks, including $23 million in the current fiscal year and $14 million in the upcoming fiscal year. Meanwhile, a wave of closures and reduced hours has also reduced gate fees.

During the session in Rim Country, the board approved operating agreements with various partners all modeled on Payson’s contract to keep the Natural Bridge open. But the board also adopted an overall $45 million budget that has dropped by a third in the past two years. In 2002, the state’s general fund provided half of the operating revenue for a then-smaller system. This year, the state parks will get no general fund money — and can’t even keep all its gate fees.

Moreover, the Legislature has also swallowed up the money in an assortment of special funds, like $10 million in Heritage Fund money the parks board used to dole out as grants to various projects in the parks and in nearby communities. The board used its last $1 million in Heritage Funds to pay off the final loans for the purchase of Tonto Natural Bridge.

The two-day session shifted back and forth between the stop-gap measures needed to survive deep cuts in operating funds triggered by legislative sweeps and frustrated discussion of the future of the system, which bolsters rural economies statewide.

Spending by out-of-area visitors to state parks pumps some $266 million annually into hard-pressed rural economies, but the Legislature has not only cut off general fund assistance but diverted even gate fees to cover costs in other state departments.

State parks advocates have tried desperately to head off cuts or to find a funding source that wouldn’t be at the mercy of a cash-strapped Legislature.

Fifth District state House Rep. Bill Konopnicki and others did introduce a bill that would have added a $5 or $10 surcharge to vehicle registration, to give state parks a secure source of funding. In return, Arizona vehicle owners would have gotten free admission to most of the parks in the system all year long, but the bill did not get very far during last year’s legislative session.

The board brainstormed about ways to provide “sustainable” long-term funding for the whole system.

State park visitors peaked at about 2.5 million in 2002, but have been declining steadily ever since. Visitation to Tonto Natural Bridge peaked at about 93,000 about four years ago, but by last year had fallen to about 62,000. This year the bridge is operating just five days a week, but visitation has rebounded sharply.

Much of the discussion focused on whether parks advocates should back a ballot measure to win voter approval of some version of a vehicle license surcharge. Such a tax would stabilize park funding and allow the system to provide necessary maintenance and would also likely greatly boost visitation. In most parks, out-of-state visitors account for half of the total. Visitors to state parks spend an average of $70 each, most of it in surrounding communities, according to a study by Northern Arizona University economists.

However, most of the board members agreed that the state parks would have to team up with other groups like county parks, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, off-road users, hunters and other advocates of outdoor recreation to win passage of a statewide measure — especially if it involved a constitutional amendment.

Assistant Parks Director Jay Zeiman said the recent voter approval of a sales tax surcharge to balance the budget offers hope that voters would also act to save the state parks system. “If you ask Arizona voters to vote on something and they see a direct benefit, they’ll do it — even if it’s a tax.”

The board asked the staff to contact potential partners in such an effort and report back in the fall on the possibilities for a ballot measure to earmark funding to support the parks and other outdoor recreation.

The board also approved a succession of partnerships to keep parks open through the summer, starting with its contract with Payson to provide $24,000 which the town hopes to raise through donations.

The range of contracts demonstrated how much has changed since Payson first raised the possibility of a partnership last year. Initially, state parks officials said they couldn’t consider any arrangement that would turn the park over to another agency — or even allow non-state-employees to collect money —including gate fees and gift shop sales.

All that has changed, as evidenced by the diversity of contracts approved and still under consideration.

For instance, the board approved a contract to run the gift shop with a nonprofit community group set up to support Red Rock State Park.

The board approved an impressive list of such contracts, which brought in a total of nearly $500,000 and averted most park closures — at least through September.

In addition, the parks board agreed to temporarily turn over several parks to outside groups to operate. That includes Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Tombstone Courthouse, Yuma Prison, Tubac Presidio and the Yuma Quartermaster Depot.

Only a handful of parks that can sustain themselves entirely on gate fees continue to operate normally. That includes Kartchner Caverns, although that’s operated in large measure by a private contractor. A string of parks along the Colorado River continue to make money from boating and camping fees, including Buckskin Mountain, Lake Havasu and Cattail Cove. Other parks that continue to operate normally include Catalina, Dead Horse Ranch, Fool Hollow, Patagonia Lake and Slide Rock.

The rush of new agreements leaves the door open to the kinds of creative possibilities Payson has pushed for from the start of its discussion with state parks.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans has said the town will do whatever it takes to keep the park open, since visitors to the bridge contribute $3.6 million annually to the local economy — which contrasts with the roughly $160,000 operating budget for the park.

Payson officials have said that a long-term contract with a private contractor could provide the money needed to expand the park and restore some of the money-making activities that took place there when it was in private hands. That included a restaurant in the historic inn, a swimming pool, campsites, cabins and a u-pick orchard.

Bahl noted that all doors remain open, to keep the park open and make it self-sufficient.

“Payson is really the model for all these agreements,” she said last week. “I see it as a launching point. It is my hope that the state parks board can find a sustainable funding source. But we’re also looking at concessionaires. If we can enhance the facilities, provide extra amenities and still preserve the resource. If that’s possible at Tonto, then that’s on the table.”

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