Oracle State Park will remain open for now.
The Arizona State Parks Board last Friday spent hours laboring over the collective fate of 11 parks, the 4,000-acre site in Oracle among them.
Agency officials in late January proposed closing parks, after state legislators announced cuts of $26.7 million to the parks system this year, on top of $7.8 million in cuts made at the agency last July.
Statewide, the Legislature has proposed cutting $1.6 billion in fiscal 2009, which ends June 30.
More could be siphoned from the park system once lawmakers finalize budget plans. And more still could be cut from agency operations in fiscal 2010, depending on state revenue projections.
“The last thing any of us want to do is close any park, cut any program, cut any grant,” parks board member Larry Landry said Friday, Feb. 20. “More than half our budget was taken away from us.”
Landry’s comments did little to mollify the crowd of nearly 100 gathered at the Peoria City Council chambers last week.
The group included six SaddleBrooke residents, all members of the Friends of Oracle State Park, who made the nearly 300-mile round trip to Peoria to protest the possible closure of their beloved park. The support group since early February has lobbied to keep the park open.
After meeting for nearly five hours last Friday, the state parks board decided to close only three parks — Florence’s McFarland Historic State Park, Jerome Historic State Park and Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. The buildings at those parks, agency officials said, have fallen into disrepair and pose safety hazards to park visitors.
Oracle had been on a list of initial closures this year, but parks board members balked at closing it and Homolovi Ruins State Park in Winslow.
“I feel like we’re being asked in somewhat of a void to close parks,” said board member Mark Winkelman, who also serves as the state land commissioner.
Arizona State Parks Executive Director Ken Travous had proposed a mix of solutions to the agency’s budget shortfall, including holding back nearly $7 million in grants, some of which already had been awarded to various groups throughout the state. Other cuts included nearly $5 million in “sweeps” from other natural-resource-related funds.
The agency has endured ever-increasing financial strain since 2002, Travous explained. That’s when lawmakers began “diverting” money from the agency to cover shortfalls elsewhere in state government.
“The Legislature has been closing state parks the last six years,” Travous said last Friday. “We’ve been operating on a house of cards that has had a sledgehammer taken to it.”
Twenty-six people last Friday spoke out against the proposed park closures and cuts to grant funding.
The Friends of Oracle State Park offered to split the cost of running the park with the state. The group has pledged to donate up to $4,000 a month to help keep the park open for the remainder of fiscal 2009. And, members have sought ways to help fund park operations in the future.
“If you’re not going to keep it open, we’re not going to give you the money,” warned Bill John, a SaddleBrooke resident and former Friends of Oracle State Park president.
Another Oracle supporter, Kathi Sanders, also a SaddleBrooke resident, urged state officials to “reconsider the role volunteers can play in keeping the park open.”
Parks officials have downplayed the idea of using volunteers to run, or partially run, state parks. The main reason for their caution rests on insurance liabilities, Travous said.
About 80 Friends of Oracle State Park work hundreds of hours a year at the park, helping guide tours and leading environmental education workshops.
Oracle State Park opened to the public in 2001, about 15 years after the Defenders of Wildlife conveyed the property to the state. Provisions of the deed stipulated that not more than 10 percent of the park’s 4,000 acres be developed, and that it would include an environmental education program.
The Kannally family had donated their property, including a Mediterranean-style ranch house, to the Defenders of Wildlife in 1976. The house is listed on the Federal Register of National Historic Places.
The state parks board last Friday voted 3-1 to hold off closing more parks until the agency further refines its budget projections. Oracle and other parks still face closure.
“I think we’re happy,” said Cindy Krupicka, president of the Friends of Oracle State Park. “I know it’s happy today. But, it’s baby steps, right?”
When contemplating which parks it might close, the state agency looked at how much it cost per visitor to operate each of its 27 parks. It costs about $26/visitor to operate Oracle State Park — second highest only to McFarland State Park in Florence.
In fiscal 2008, which ended last June 30, it cost $278,398 to operate the park in Oracle, according to state officials. The 9,898 recorded visitors to the park brought in $14,492.
Scores of Oracle residents and park volunteers, however, have questioned using cost per visitor as the only metric for deciding which parks to close.
“I just don’t think looking at the cost-per-visitor ratio for a small park is fair,” Ron Feller told the parks board last week. “Parks should be looked at in their entirety.”
In April, if not sooner, the parks board will take up the matter again. Despite making other cuts, Travous said, the agency likely would have to close more parks starting this spring.
Scanning the audience in the Peoria council chamber on Feb. 20, parks board member William Scalzo warned, “Don’t leave here today thinking we’re not going to close more state parks.”