Communities struggle to keep parks open

Flagstaff, AZ – Many Arizona communities are struggling to save their natural and historic treasures as state parks face severe budget cuts. Flagstaff's Riordan Mansion is set to close later this month along with Winslow's Homolovi Ruins and Lyman Lake in Saint Johns. As Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales reports some of the parks may not have enough financial support to survive this economic crisis.

ROSE: Welcome to Riordan Mansion State Historic Park. I'm Adrienne in case you have questions as we go along

Adrienne Rose, a long-time volunteer, gives a tour of the enormous century-old Arts and Crafts style home located just west of Northern Arizona University's Flagstaff campus.

ROSE: I mentioned Mr. Riordan was 6 foot 3. Mrs. Riordan was 4 foot 11. Wow!...(fade down)

Tours like these may be a thing of the past. In December the Legislature decided to cut more than 8 million dollars from the state parks budget, even though the parks system receives no direct taxpayer dollars. The Parks Board was forced to take the unprecedented step of closing 13 parks.

Kathy Farretta is the assistant park manager at Riordan Mansion. She says the move did not make sense to her as the park brings tourist dollars to northern Arizona.

FARRETTA: You can look at the numbers and they're very very clear we draw people to the community. There is money that is spent here by tourists in the community including tax dollars that go back into the system we are an economic engine for the community of Flagstaff.

All of the parks together generate more money for the state of Arizona then they spend. In fact, the parks bring in 266 million dollars as an agency to the state. The nine parks that will remain open are ones that generate the most revenue and put it back into the parks revolving funds.

Faretta says in addition to the park's economic benefits, the Riordan mansion has educational value.

FARRETTA: Having this house here gives you an opportunity to physically immerse yourself in that space. It's an experience you can't get out of a book. It gives a chance for us to bring school children here who are learning about local history to walk in the spaces that the Riordans walked in and to think about what it takes to build a community. And if we don't think about what it takes to build a community how are we going to do it in our own time.

Faretta and several other park employees will lose their jobs in two weeks when the park closes. She says while the Riordan family is very supportive of the staff and their preservation efforts, they don't want to take over the mansion.
Eileen Gannon is the great granddaughter of Timothy Riordan. She came to a recent meeting where about 40 people strategized different ways to raise funds for the park. The Riordans deeded the house to the state parks department in 1980.

GANNON: It's important to the family to keep the house within the hands of the public. And to keep it open to the public. And the state parks department we feel is the vehicle by which is excellent at doing that. We want to keep it in the hands of a government agency because that is for the public. If it goes private it's more of a closed off feeling.

While Riordan supporters are trying to raise enough money to keep the mansion open on a limited basis, other communities are working on similar efforts for their state parks. The Yavapai County Board of Supervisors recently decided to spend money from cable TV franchise taxes to re-open Jerome State Historic Park and to prevent the closure of Fort Verde and Red Rock state parks.

In Payson Mayor Kenny Evans has been fighting to keep Tonto Natural Bridge open. He describes the ordeal this way.

EVANS: A little bit like being in a fencing match but the other guy has a giant Samarai sword. It has just been catastrophic. We watched the money being swept, then the gate money being swept, then monies that accumulated for decades to make what you and I would call a mortgage payment be swept until literally the state park is left without the resources to do the job that the citizens of Arizona directed that they do.

Evans says he's relied heavily on volunteers. He's working on a public private partnership to keep the park open. Currently the park is only open on weekends.

EVANS: You can't take away significant revenue sources like our state parks that bring in millions and millions and millions of dollars from outside of the state of Arizona. You can't afford to take that out of the system without simply delaying and making deeper the problem that you are trying to solve.

Evans and Riordan's Kathy Farretta say it will cost more to close the parks than it does to keep them open.

FARRETTA: This isn't a place you can mothball like a winter coat and put it away in a closet and pull it out 8 months or 9 months or five years later and have it as good as new. This place needs requires demands active maintenance and utility costs. You can't just walk away and expect it to be here. So if this place is not able to stay open it will be lost to the school children of the future. It will be lost to all the generations that come after us because we goofed up one day in 2000-whatever.

Park officials are worried about boarding up these archaeological ruins, historical sites and natural wonders and leaving them vulnerable to vandals.
State parks spokeswoman Ellen Bilbrey says the park system was originally developed to preserve the state's treasures and to attract tourists to rural areas.

BILBREY: We're the last state to get a state park system. And we would be the first state to lose a state park system and it's a horrible thing to think that we would lose these wonderful economic revenue streams for these rural areas for very small very finite it's really budget dust to keep these churning 2.3 million tourists into these communities.

Three bills have been drafted in recent weeks that would create alternate funding sources for the park system. The Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce is watching House Bill 2060. It would immediately appropriate 35 million dollars for State Parks and 5 million dollars for a half dozen museums. The money would come from the Public Conservation account.

Yavapai County Supervisor Chip Davis has his eye on another bill that would add a surcharge to the vehicle license tax. It would allow Arizonans entrance into the state parks without paying an additional fee.

DAVIS: That not only secures funding for state parks but it also would probably cause more people to come out and see their parks. I think the introduction of those three bills is indicative that the legislature did realize that Arizona loves its parks and the introduction of those bills is testimony to that.

If the vehicle license surcharge bill is approved by lawmakers it would go before voters in November.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.