U.S. News Headlines

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Arizona to close 13 parks by June due to budget woes

An oversight board voted unanimously Friday to close 13 of Arizona's state parks in response to budget cuts, leaving two-thirds of the parks shut in the most aggressive cuts to such facilities in the nation.

The Arizona State Parks Board is closing some of the state's iconic Old West landmarks, including the Tombstone Courthouse in one of the West's most storied towns, and the Yuma Territorial Prison, which housed hundreds of Old West outlaws and was portrayed in the film "3:10 to Yuma."

The decision also closes parks such as Red Rock State Park near Sedona that draw tens of thousands of tourists a year.

The Legislature has cut 61 percent of the state parks budget since July.

"This board has done something that is very tough, very hard," said parks board chairman Reese Woodling. "I think most of us probably haven't slept for a while, at least not soundly."

The board closed five parks last year in response to budget cuts. The plan approved Friday closes three parks in February, five in March and five in June.

Mayors, city officials and residents from communities near state parks pleaded with the board not to close their local parks, saying the facilities are critical to the towns' economies and heritage.

Some made proposals to chip in money that might keep their parks open.

"We're not looking for a handout. We're not here to complain," said Bob Burnside, mayor of Camp Verde, near Fort Verde State Historic Park. The town will put up money to keep Fort Verde operating until March while officials look for a long-term arrangement for the park.

The parks board voted to ask the Legislature for a temporary exemption to use for operations $1.7 million earmarked for land acquisition and $3 million earmarked for the state forester's office.

The board also gave parks staff the authority to seek a loan and try to get an extension on a $374,000 lease-purchase payment for Tonto Natural Bridge State Park due in August.

The Parks Department's budget is now $7.5 million, down from $19.3 million in July and $27 million in fiscal year 2008. Lawmakers raided revenue from entry, tour and event fees, as well as camping permits and cabin rentals. The agency now needs cash to replenish the drained account so it can continue operating in the next fiscal year.

Doing so requires closing most of the unprofitable parks, officials said.

The plan spares the system's six profitable parks and three others that generate significant revenue in the spring and summer. The nine parks that will remain open generate 75 percent of the system's revenue, said Jay Ream, assistant state parks director.

Popular parks including Kartchner Caverns, Slide Rock and Lake Havasu will remain open. But others including Tonto Natural Bridge near Payson and Lost Dutchman east of Phoenix will close.

Officials have said they may need to close more parks if they can't raise $3 million by June, which is the end of the fiscal year.

Dale Sinquah, a Hopi Tribal Council member, said his tribe has accepted that Homolovi Ruins will close. The park is the site of an ancient Hopi civilization that was threatened by artifact thieves until Arizona State Parks bought it in the 1980s.

"The Hopi way is strong," Sinquah said, but it's held together by a vulnerable collection of ancient ceremonies, songs and dances passed between generations.

"The state park has been protecting the culture and land and tradition of the people, and I hope this will continue," he said.

Arizona is not the only place where lawmakers are targeting parks, but it is taking the most aggressive action, said Phil McNelly, executive director of the National Association of State Parks Directors.

Jerry VanGas, of Phoenix, said voters should hold legislators accountable for the cuts made to state parks.

"My vested interest is that my daughter, her friends, the next generation - I don't want them to miss out on what I experience with state lands," he said.

Cindy Sherman, of Flagstaff, asked the board why all the historic parks were on the closure list, saying parks that protect and share history are worthy of protection.

"History is our DNA," she said. "Once that is gone, we're not going to get it back."