Arizona State Parks

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AS PBS and Ken Burns examine the rich scenic and cultural values of our national parks, HORIZON focuses its lens on Arizona State Parks. We’ll preview an upcoming report from ASU’s Morrison Institute that considers the role and future of Arizona’s 30 State Parks. Guests include State Parks Director, Renee Bahl; State Parks Board member, Bill Scalzo; and Morrison Institute’s Grady Gammage, Jr. who also serves on the Sustainable State Parks Task Force.

Ted Simons: In his new six-part film airing on Eight, Ken Burns documents the values and virtues of our national parks. He calls America's national parks America's best idea. Arizona has 30 state parks, a diverse collection of historic, cultural and natural wonders but some of those treasures have been taken from us, closed from the public out of financial necessity. We'll take a look at ideas at reopening parks and prevent future closings, but first, David Majure and photographer Scot Olson take us to Tonto natural bridge, near Payson that's in a state of uncertainty.

John Beck: The Tonto natural bridge is the largest travertine bridge in the world. It was formed completely by deposited minerals from an underground spring.

David Majure: John Beck has been the park manager of the Tonto Bridge State Park since it opened in 1990. He's worked more than 30 years for Arizona state parks and was once asked what he would do if the agency had unlimited funds.

John Beck: First thing I thought, let everybody go to the parks for free. Wouldn't that be great. We can't do that, we need the funding and the money coming in from visitors paying to enter the parks goes for salaries and operations of the park and that's the only way we can survive during these times.

David Majure: Surviving this recession has been touch. Over all, state parks have seen fewer visitors and state budget cuts forced some to close completely. Tonto was one of them in February. Now it's open weekends only.

John Beck: For me, it's very disappointing. I miss the visitors and the employees. We had to let go of our volunteers for a time also.

David Majure: Except for Javalena, and workers busy repairing the historic lodge, Beck is on his own most of the week.

John Beck: When I'm here by myself, I hear voices.

David Majure: His sanity might have been saved earlier when the town stepped up with money to keep the park open on weekends.

Ken Evans: To the town it's a huge economic engine.

David Majure: Payson mayor Ken Evans says the park generates about $3.5 million in economic activity for his town and surrounding communities. But his passion for the park is more than economics.

Ken Evans: This truly is a gem in the middle of the state of Arizona. It's one of those -- one of those magical place where is you can travel back through the years and really see time as it used to be. We have to help the general public, the elected officials, and those who make critical budget decisions understand that we're not trying to just maintain the economic engine of this park. We're trying to perpetuate this as a place where future generations can come and truly sense and feel what time was like years and years and years ago.

David Majure: Payson and its partners have made a financial commitment to keep the park open off and on into next year. It's a temporary fix. Not a permanent solution.

Ken Evans: One the challenges we have as the parks were developed 30 to 40 years ago in a period of relevant -- a period of affluence, we developed a number of parks without a real sustainable long-term plan on how we were going to maintain those. You need to have a plan. A plan that's based in the community, that has community support and that will perpetuate for not only people from the northern Gila County, but for people in Arizona and around the world. This is a place to come and see.
David Majure: For now, the message is come see the Tonto bridge, but only on weekends or until the money runs out.

John Beck: We have to do what we have to do.

Ted Simons: We should note that as of today, Tonto park manager John Beck is officially retired. He says it's a decision he made some time ago and not related to the current budget crisis. Arizona state parks lost a third of its funding this year when state lawmakes cut it's general fund budge to zero -- likely a victim of the recession. On a positive note, the governor's taskforce is searching for ways to make our park system more sustainable and a report from ASU's Morrison Institute due in October is expected to outline strategies to achieve that goal. Joining me is Grady Gammage Jr., a senior research fellow for the Morrison Institute. and a member the governor's state parks taskforce, also here is Renee Bahl, director of Arizona State Parks and Bill Scalzo, a member of the state parks board.

Ted Simons: Good to have you all on Horizon. Renee, Arizona parks are in trouble. That's not an overstatement.

Renee Bahl: We're in a dire situation. We have parks closed. Parks at reduced hours, we are not awarding grant moneys to communities to build up recreation, we're in a pretty dire fiscal straits right now.

Ted Simons: Bill, how did we get here?

Bill Scalzo: It happened over a period of time. The general fund budgeting for that department has been cut back it a level of zero now. And we started this past year with about $30 million budget, this past fiscal year, not this one. By the end of the year, we were at $21 million, and we're starting this year with $19 million. You can't operate a system that needs in excess of $30 million when we have $19 million.

Grady Gammage Jr.: We found that the state parks department has been really starved both in good times and bad. In bad times, their money's been swept and taken into the general fund and they don't get to keep the revenues they earn at the parks. In good times, the state parks never gets to the top of the priority list and ahead of it are education funding and other things, but also cutting taxes. So they don't get the money they should, even when times are good and when times are bad, we wind up not taking care of hard assets that we as a state own.

Ted Simons: I know attendance at state parks isn't what it should be. Is that a factor as well? People just don't know they're there and those that know they're there, say, oh, I'm not going to -- how do you convince lawmakers this is important when attendance isn't what it should be?

Renee Bahl: Well, it is given the park system we have right now. Our parks are in rural communities and visited by recreational enthusiasts across the state and around the world. The problem is our parks aren't where the population base is. That's why we have grant programs. We funded recreational amenities to cities and counties, so when you look at the whole picture, we have high visitation. When you look at just state parks, we're a little more rural.

Grady Gamamge Jr.: Ted part of the problem is, they've never had enough money to promote the parks. If people don't know where they are and how cool some of them are and what they do because we don't make any effort to market them because there's no money to market them. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ted Simons: Are we willing to pay for state parks? It's one thing to say we've got them and like them. But are we willing to pay for them?

Bill Scalzo: Right now we commit about $4 per capita. Which makes us one of the lowest in the nation. Most states are three to four times what we do per capita. So the sustainability taskforce that Governor Brewer has established is looking at options. Solutions, so we can have a stable budget. Not this kind of system where we have no money for operation and no capital.

Grady Gammage Jr.: One more statistic just on that. We're 43rd in the nation. This is one the Arizona at the bottom of the list stories. In the percent of our state budget that we spend on state parks. We spent.09%. And that's before the latest cuts.

Ted Simons: And there's no money for restoration or preservation for state parks in nearly a decade?

Renee Bahl: We have not had a major maintenance budget. Our capital budget was severely limited and now it's essentially zero. It's not something that's been funded throughout the years. The limited budget we have is for operating. To go back to your point and Bill's, one of the reasons our visitation is lower because we're closing parks, changes the days of the weeks that it's open. The public is confused because we don't know what our budget is for the future.

Ted Simons: Bill mentioned a stable funding source being very important. We can talk all day about state parks and problems and concerns and challenges, but that stable funding source really is key, isn't it?

Renee Bahl: Absolutely, especially when you own land like state parks. We're not programs we can wind down or wind up. We have a cost of running a park whether it's open or closed and we need to have the money to serve the public.

Ted Simons: What are the options?

Grady Gammage Jr.: The Morrison report coming out in a couple of weeks, here, and we looked at places around the United States and different sorts of options. Those options are things like increasing the use of concessionaires and maybe raising fees for boat launching and those things. There are things you can do in terms of partnerships with local communities. But all of those, none of those by themselves gives you a big enough revenue source to really support parks on a long-term stable basis. The two things that I think do have some real potential, one is a favorite of Bill's, there are state park systems around the country supported by royalty payments from mining or case of states that have oil and gas. And the other one that we think has a lot of merit to be explored is a surcharge on license plates. The state of Montana has one. Washington has one. Michigan has been considering one. I think it passed. You put a surcharge on state license plates and keep can get into state parks for no additional admission charge.

Ted Simons: Why do you like that royalty idea?

Bill Scalzo: Because it's a natural resource. We're taking away from the state copper and other mining industries. They pay a very low royalty fee. The total last year, $13 million out of $2 billion worth of resources. I think if they just increased that by 1%, we could haveadditional revenue that would go to state parks to maybe restore these capital needs we have and that would be a good way for resources to be put back into natural resources.

Ted Simons: Is there political will for that kind of idea?

Bill Scalzo: We're going to present a variety of ideas to the governor and I think this committee made up of business people primarily who care about this state will present those ideas with the concept this we need to move now. We can't wait and hopefully, the legislature will look at that along with the governor and say it's time. We cannot wait any longer.

Ted Simons: Is there a way to take what the state parks are, the department is right now, and consolidate with game and fish, for example, or the historical -- something along these -- coordinate better with other agencies and maybe do something where shifting the responsibilities helps parks?

Renee Bahl: There's always opportunities to coordinate, but right now, our situation is we need a solution for state parks. We work closely with these other entities but we're here to preserve natural, cultural and recreational resources and help the rural economies with their -- help these rural economies. So with those two items, I think we need to focus on the state parks funding right now.

Grady Gammage Jr.: There's some real merit I think to exploring those kind of things. That wasn't the job of this taskforce. But a subsequent taskforce, you might take a look at that. Clearly realignment of state agencies might make sense. We have a large number of small state agencies dealing with some of same things but they have different constituent constituencies and it's a political problem and whether it saves money is a good question.

Ted Simons: I've heard criticism there's almost too much diversity within the state parks system. There's not a solid focus. Is that a valid criticism? Can it be looked at?

Renee Bahl: It can be, but we're here to preserve natural and cultural resources and some focus more on one than another but that's the beauty of the Arizona state parks system. I would argue to the contrary.

Bill Scalzo: That's a mix -- population wise, there are families who are young that want more recreational activities they want to go to slide rock or Lake Havasu and there are those have had interest historic preservation. Diversity is good in many ways but unfortunately, it costs more money because some facilities don't produce the revenues because the population interest is more limited.

Grady Gammage Jr.: One of things we said in our report, going forward from here, if we get to where we can have a stable system and think about the future of that system and how it should expand, you may want to stake out different priorities in terms of what you do. But the reality today is we have this remarkable collection -- I mean, we were the last of the lower 48 states to do this. Only since the 1950s and in a short period, we've built an amazing series of assets and allowing them to completely fall apart. It's a real tragedy. You watch the Ken Burns stuff and it tears at your heartstrings. We have ones in our own state that we're just ignoring.

Ted Simons: In terms of going forward, should there be more of an emphasis on fixing what is or changing what is?

Renee Bahl: I think first is, fixing what is. Because we do have a beautiful system and then looking out to the future on what we could and should be. And that's exactly what the state parks board is doing now. What is our vision for the future and making those connections so we have clean air, water and a great outdoor environment.

Bill Scalzo: And the state parks board, we're doing strategic planning right now. We have several meetings coming up and the board in October will get the framework of a strategic plan we want to discuss and move forward with. That's going to give us new direction and may mean adjustments to what we currently do.

Ted Simons: As far as the Morrison Institute study coming out in a couple of weeks, what do you want the people to take from that?

Grady Gammage Jr.: I think the number one thing, what an extraordinary set of assets these are and how you can't own hard assets and ignore them. You -- that's just crazy and Renee said earlier, it's not like you're gearing up and down programs. It's you own things. There are Adobe walls in the mansion that is the Jerome state park, the Douglas mansion, that are falling over. They are held up by like sticks at the moment. There are parks all over the state that are under citation from the state's own department of environmental quality because water systems are not safe. It's just insane to have built a collection -- you know, it's like you bought a house and you spend a lot of money and don't do anything to take care of it, it will fall apart and many of these are irreplaceable assets.

Ted Simons: Is that how you see it as well? As far as the study is concerned just to recognize what is there and use that as a launching point. I wasn't even aware that except for one quasi difference, there are no official state parks in Maricopa County -- a lot of county parks but no state parks in Maricopa County. Is that a good thing, by the way?

Renee Bahl: It was a fine thing when we had resources to award as grants to entities like Maricopa County, because people had recreational assets near them. We may want to revisit and look at the big picture again. We're only a 65,000-acre entity. But it is a launching point, the Morrison Institute. It's bringing to the surface what people value and we need to be sure it's their priority and remind them of the beautiful assets we have.

Ted Simons: The Morrison Institute report, taskforce, lots of talk and evaluation, what do you want folks to take from it?

Bill Scalzo: We want folks to make decisions and let's move forward. Let's stabilize the system with funding and take a look at some of these recommendations, be it better partner was the local cities, royalties, taxes, a license fee, and combine those and come one a plan and do it during the next legislative session. We don't have time. This is a system on life support and can't allow it to continue like that.

Ted Simons: We mentioned lawmakers, the governor, does she seem to be aware of it and understand what's going on?

Bill Scalzo: We requested that the governor pursue this and set up a taskforce. She did it and put outstanding people on it and wants to know what we're going to do. And so we're going to make recommendations to her and late in October, after a couple more taskforce meeting, I hope she takes a serious look at it, which I think she will, and move forward with some of the recommendations.

Ted Simons: We'll stop it there. Thank you for joining us on "Horizon."

Renee Bahl: Director, Arizona State Parks; Bill Scalzo:State Parks Board member; Grady Gammage, Jr.:Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU;

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