Oracle State Park closes to public - Tucson Local Media: Pima Pinal

Oracle State Park closes to public

It's open for reservations only; parks department to lay off 30; cuts equal 27 percent budget reduction

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Posted: Tuesday, September 15, 2009 11:00 pm

The Arizona State Parks Board announced a series of unprecedented cuts to its operations last Friday in an effort to stave off creeping budget deficits.

To bridge an estimate $1.5 million gap, the board decided on cuts totaling 27 percent of the department's operating budget and the reduction of as many as 30 positions.

Among those cuts is the elimination of public hours at Oracle State Park. Access to Oracle State Park will be limited to reservations for special events and school groups.

Hours at some other state parks are being limited to five days a week. The new schedules take effect Oct. 1.

Oracle State Park had about 10,000 visitors in 2007. Those visitors spent about $180,000 per year in the surrounding community and paid $14,000 in taxes. The park costs about $300,000 a year to run. It has had four employees.

Catalina State Park attracted 150,000 visitors who contributed more than $12 million to the local economy and $1.6 million in state and local taxes. Catalina State Park will maintain normal hours, with possible adjustments to meet seasonal demands.

Park officials plan to have some staff available to tend to the historic Kannally Ranch House at Oracle State Park.

"We think that it's still our responsibility to maintain that," said Ellen Bilbrey, Arizona State Parks Department spokeswoman.

Bilbrey said the details of where the bulk of cuts would be made and which employees would be laid off have not been made. She noted many of the layoffs would affect employees of the department's numerous educational and environmental programs. Others would impact workers at the parks such as rangers.

In addition to the layoffs, Bilbrey said the department has been under a hiring freeze for more than a year. During that time, the department has lost many hard-to-replace employees, she said.

"You've got a very high level of educated people running those parks," she said.

Long-serving park rangers, for example, carry a broad base of knowledge, including law enforcement, wastewater treatment maintenance, fire suppression, pesticide application, electrical and plumbing repairs and information on area flora and fauna.

"Think of the knowledge we lose," Bilbrey said. "To replace that person is tremendously difficult."

According to one estimate, parks are an important economic force for the state and communities near to parks. A recent study conducted by the Northern Arizona University's Hospitality Research and Resource Center found that 2.3 million people visited state parks in 2007. Visitors to the parks generated more than $266 million for the state's economy, while state and local governments garnered than $22 million in taxes.

Earlier this year, the state legislature swept millions of dollars from the department's various funds. Further budget cuts leave the department $19.3 million to operate the state's 30 parks and historical assets.

Parks officials said that in November, the board would look at proposals to raise entry fees to parks. System-wide, parks plan to rely more heavily on the volunteer groups that work in gift shops and help to clean campgrounds and facilities as a way keep down costs.

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