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Arizona towns pitch in to save state parks

Donations keep Lost Dutchman, Tonto Natural Bridge and other parks open a bit longer amid a state budget crunch. One resident donates $8,000.

March 29, 2010|By Nicole Santa Cruz
  • Payson, Ariz., has mobilized to raise funds to keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open until Sept. 27.
Payson, Ariz., has mobilized to raise funds to keep Tonto Natural Bridge… (Arizona State Parks )

Reporting from Apache Junction, Ariz. — Taylor Sanford Jr., a 76-year-old Texan who fell in love with the Arizona desert, couldn't imagine being unable to visit Lost Dutchman State Park to see its scattered fields of golden wildflowers.

So Sanford strode into a community meeting here recently and wrote a check for $8,000, the estimated cost of keeping the park open for a month.

The retired airline captain is just one of many who are donating money or time in hopes of saving Arizona's suffering state parks.

Since 2007, the Legislature has reduced park funding by almost 80%.

Facing one of the steepest budget shortfalls in state history, Arizona lawmakers cut an additional $3.9 million from the system this month. In November 2009, the Pew Center on the States ranked Arizona as having the second-worst budget crisis in the nation, right behind California.

Five of 30 state parks have already closed. Six, not including Lost Dutchman, are set to shut down by June.

"It will be difficult to conceive of a comprehensive state park system in Arizona if the trend continues," said Richard Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Assn.

In the last year, about 400 state parks have been slated for closure in several states, said Phil McKnelly, executive director for the National Assn. of State Parks Directors.

Arizona is the only state that has already closed some sites, a devastating blow for some rural areas.

Apache Junction is a city of 40,000 that has retained its rural character -- one councilman rides a horse to council meetings. And Lost Dutchman is vital to its economy.

The Superstition Mountains are the main attraction of the park, which is named after a gold mine. In the spring, visitors can see blooms of blue lupine, yellow fiddleneck and white desert chicory.

From October to April, snowbirds with RVs and trailers invade the surrounding areas of Apache Junction and almost double the population, said Stephen Filipowicz, the city's economic development director.

The community, which Filipowicz described as "hiking, horses and Harleys," is trying to prevent or delay the closure. A motorcycle business is organizing a charity ride, and the city started lending out maintenance equipment to the park.

Even so, Lost Dutchman may close in September, unless $25,000 can be raised to keep it open during the quiet summer months. Sanford's $8,000 goes toward that amount, and an unidentified donor gave $5,000.

"The silver lining in the budget crisis is we are getting to know our neighbors," Filipowicz said.

Other Arizona towns have donated money to the parks -- if only to buy time until a better solution is found.

Payson, in central Arizona, has entered into an agreement to keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open until Sept. 27.

Mayor Kenny Evans has raised more than $50,000 for the park over the last two years by working with individuals, corporations and the Tonto Apache tribe.

Partnerships like Payson's will become more common as states continue to wrestle with budget shortfalls, Evans said.

"I think it spells a real sea change in terms of how certain public functions will have to be funded," he said.

Volunteers have also taken to the streets of Payson, knocking on doors to ask for donations or to urge people to volunteer, such as performing maintenance, to keep the park afloat.

"We'll do whatever it takes," said Bill Ensign, president of Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge.

The bridge is a soaring 183-foot-high arc of travertine. Ensign said its beauty could not be put into words.

"It's like being closer to God when you're down there," he said.

Camp Verde, a community of 11,000 north of Phoenix, contributed about $75,000 from its $6-million budget to Fort Verde State Historic Park. Yavapai County donated an additional $30,000 to keep the park open for one year.

Mayor Bob Burnside said the community took pride in the site, which was a military base in the 1870s and 1880s, during the end of the American Indian Wars.

"This started our settlement," he said, sitting on a bench at Fort Verde, which is lined with a white picket fence. "This is our culture."

Historic sites aren't moneymakers, but they are an essential part of the town's fabric, Burnside said.

"Can you imagine being in New York and telling your kids you're going to take them out West to see the cowboys and Indians, and they're not there?" he asked.

nicole.santacruz@ latimes.com

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