Arizona is on the verge of permanently closing more than half of its state parks to ease its budget woes — the most drastic such proposal in the nation and one that could mean shutting down some iconic Old West locations.
The plan would close the Tombstone Courthouse and the Yuma Territorial Prison, and shut down parks that draw tens of thousands of tourists a year such as Red Rock State Park in Sedona.
"We don't have a choice. It's either shut them all down right now or shut them down in phases, and we're picking the ones that cost the state money," said Reese Woodling, head of the Arizona Parks Board, which plans on Friday to take up a staff recommendation to close 13 parks by June 3. State officials closed five parks last year.
If the additional closures are approved, two-thirds of the state parks in Arizona will be shut down.
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.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year proposed closing 220 of California's 279 parks in the face of a multibillion-dollar deficit. But the governor backed off four months later after protests from park activists.
Schwarzenegger returned to the issue this month by proposing to expand oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast to provide $140 million for state parks.
Officials in Louisiana, Iowa and Idaho have said they may close all or parts of state parks in response to budget problems. Other states have transferred parks to local control.
Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter hopes to disband the state parks agency, saving $10 million by selling the headquarters building and moving management of 30 state parks to other agencies. Opponents have raised potential legal issues, but Otter's office hopes to find a way around them.
In Arizona, cities are fretting about losing the tourists who visited because of the state parks. Some communities are trying to find ways to run the parks themselves, but they too have money problems.
Arizona lawmakers cut parks and other expenses last year as they tried to fill a nearly 30 percent gap between revenues and spending in a $10.7 billion budget. The budget year that begins on July 1 has similar gaps.
Since last July, the Legislature has cut 61 percent of the parks department's $19.3 million budget, including taking 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.
With that threat looming, some rural communities are digging deeper into their already tight budgets. Governments in Payson and Camp Verde contributed money to help cover operational costs at Tonto Natural Bridge and Fort Verde state parks.
But those parks are again on the proposed closure list, and city officials have told parks administrators that they want to find new ways to keep them open.
John McReynolds hopes they're successful. He estimates he gets about five Fort Verde visitors on an average day at Babe's Round-Up, the restaurant he owns in nearby Camp Verde. It doesn't sound like many, he says, but "in this economy, one person is a lot."
Visitors to Fort Verde spent nearly $1.7 million on food, lodging and other services in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2007, according to a report last year by the Arizona Hospitality Research & Resource Center at Northern Arizona University.
The report also found that parks around the state generated $163 million in direct spending.
Other communities are finding partners to put up money and share some of the operating costs. When the Parks Board voted to close Yuma Quartermaster Depot last year, the city of Yuma worked out an agreement that moves the city's visitors center to the park.
Charles Flynn of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area hopes to make another deal that would keep open the historic prison, which housed hundreds of Old West outlaws and was portrayed in the film "3:10 to Yuma."
The proposal before the Parks Board spares some of the system's most popular and profitable parks, including Kartchner Caverns, Slide Rock and Lake Havasu. Parks officials hope the profitable parks can quickly replenish the raided funds and allow them to reopen other parks.
"There's great interest from local communities to keep parks open," said Arizona State Parks Director Renee Bahl. "Any community that comes forward with something reasonable that we can afford, we'll definitely consider it."
Woodling sees it a different way. "This Legislature and this governor are killing this state," he said.
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