/ Modified jun 23, 2013 10:04 a.m.

A State Parks Report Card

System regaining footing after budget crisis; forging ahead with private operating agreements, plan to open more parks


In 2009, Arizona was in a bad budget crisis. Bleeding millions of dollars in red ink, lawmakers searched for ways to trim the budget and come up with revenue.

They found both in the Arizona State Parks system.

First they siphoned several funds that were meant to directly support state parks. Then they even took away the system's ability to make money, as fees collected at park gates were diverted into the general fund.

state-park-closed-sign_294x180 The gates to Oracle State Park were closed for nearly two years (PHOTO: Mark Duggan)

In less than two years, the agency saw its overall budget cut by three-quarters.

The result was a number of layoffs and cutbacks. Popular interpretive programs were shelved, repair and maintenance needs stacked up. Many parks cut back their operating hours.

Some faced outright closure.

One park that actually did close – for two years – was Oracle, northeast of Tucson. The 4,000-acre park is on the eastern edge of the Santa Catalina Mountains in a classic Transition Zone - mountain and high desert to the south, the lowlands of the San Pedro River valley to the east, the Sonoran Desert to the northwest.

Jennifer Rinio is the Chief Ranger at Oracle State Park. She endured by working at nearby Catalina State Park while the gates at Oracle stayed locked.

“It was tough times,” said Rinio. “For everybody and all parks.”

But the closure bugged one group of people. The privately-run Friends of Oracle State Park. The volunteer group was founded more than 20 years ago to support the park and its environmental education efforts.

Now they'd have to help financially to re-open the park, even for one day a week.

According to Mary Ann Pogany, the group's president, state parks officials approached them first. Arizona State Parks just didn't have enough money to re-open the park without private help.

“We raised $10,500 that we matched with our own $10,500 from our savings,” said Pogany. “So we came up with $21,000 to re-open the park.”

Oracle State Park is now open Saturdays and Sundays from October to April.

The group entered into a public/private partnership, similar to programs in place at some other Arizona State Parks, such as Yuma Territorial Prison, Tombstone Courthouse and Tubac Presidio.

The latter is already on its second such agreement.

state-park-tubacsp-sign_294x180 Tubac Presidio State Park south of Tucson came close to hanging up a 'closed' sign in 2009 (PHOTO: Mark Duggan)

Tubac Presidio was the first park in the system, opened in 1958. It is historically significant for several reasons. It preserves the ruins of the oldest Spanish Presidio site in Arizona, San Ignacio de Tubac, established in 1752.

The first newspaper in Arizona was also printed in Tubac in 1859.

When the park was threatened with closure in 2009, a group called the Tubac Historical Society stepped in to help run it. Then, earlier this year, they handed the reins over to another organization that was specifically formed to run the park, the Friends of Tubac Presidio and Museum.

Earl Wilson, the group's president, said parks officials told him they were losing $180,000 a year running the park. Wilson says making that up won't be easy for a group of volunteers, but he's confident fund raising efforts will be effective.

“Our job now is going to really be to start building up the attendance,” said Wilson. “Because that's what it takes to keep it going.”

It's not easy to run a state park, especially one with limited attendance. According to Wilson, a park's basic income is derived from attendance fees, donations and any special events that are held at the park.

“All of this does not really make up enough money to pay for all of the costs of operating it,” Wilson said. “So there is a shortfall and we have to have fundraisers to cover that shortfall.”

Another factor is that many of Arizona's state parks are in rural areas, far away from major cities.

But they've proven to be an effective economic engines for rural communities and businesses. Tourism visits to state parks add up to dollars spent in local eateries and lodging.

A study from Northern Arizona University's business school found that tourist visits to parks put more than $250 million into state coffers in 2007.

And when a group of local volunteers are helping to keep the park open, and then watching tourists spend money with local business, Earl Wilson feels that the volunteers develop a sense of ownership of the park.

“When you own something, you take care of it,” he said.

state-park-osp-fundraising_294x180 The Friends of Oracle State Park have come up with several ways to raise money to support keeping the park open (PHOTO: Mark Duggan)

The operating agreements between the state parks system and private groups are for set periods and must be renewed periodically.

Another factor is that certain parks, such as Kartchner Caverns, Lake Havasu and Slide Rock actually generate money, because they have so many annual visitors. Often, those parks end up helping to support the ones that make less money. Like Tubac and Oracle.

Today, in 2013, the park system is on much more solid footing.

Bryan Martyn, president of Arizona State Parks, said the entire system is running leaner than it did in 2009. More like a business. A necessity to stay healthy.

Martyn says the public/private partnerships between many of the historic state parks and private groups have been invaluable. And such partnerships will continue, for the time being. But he'd like to see Arizona State Parks step back into the role of primary operator someday.

“That's my obligation to the citizens of Arizona who own the park,” Martyn said.

“I take nothing away from all the historical agencies or the cities or the counties that have helped us tremendously with our historic parks.

But eventually they need to be pulled back into our portfolio where they're run by state park employees. With the help of the friends and volunteer groups and the cities and the counties that are doing them now.”

And now that the system is more stable, Martyn says they could add properties to the state parks system for the first time in 20 years. The first site under consideration? Fossil Creek southeast of Camp Verde.

And, instead of taking money away from Arizona State Parks, as in 2009, this year the Arizona Legislature actually added money to the system. The recently enacted state budget provides $1 million in new funding for parks.

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