Given the nearly $22 million in immediate budget cuts the Arizona Legislature has proposed for the state park system, keeping Oracle State Park open could prove difficult, Sen. Al Melvin (R-LD26) told a handful of park supporters Saturday.
“Time is of the essence here,” Melvin said after a tour of the Kannally Ranch House at the park.
On Friday, Feb. 20, the Arizona State Parks Board will vote on whether to close up to eight state parks, the 4,000-acre park in Oracle among them.
A letter-writing campaign could work, especially one featuring a detailed proposal for how the park’s support group, the Friends of Oracle State Park, could help defray operating costs, Melvin strategized.
He would write the parks board, too, the senator said.
“I promise you I will do everything I can … to keep it up and running,” Melvin told a small cadre of some of the park’s most loyal volunteers, many of whom live near Melvin in SaddleBrooke.
Two days earlier, on Feb. 5, more than 100 people had packed the Oracle Community Center to discuss the park’s potential closure.
At that meeting, the Friends of Oracle State Park proposed spending some of $40,000 they had in the bank to keep the park open for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30. It would cost about $1,500 a month to run the park with a shoestring staff — hardly a long-term solution, many volunteers said.
In fiscal 2008, 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.
When contemplating which parks it might close, the state looked at how much it cost per visitor to operate each park. It costs $26/visitor to operate Oracle State Park — second highest only to McFarland State Park in Florence.
Numerous people attending the meeting in Oracle last Thursday questioned using cost per visitor as the only metric for deciding which parks to close.
“Is that the best way to value a park?” asked Jim Walsh, the Pinal County attorney.
Even Sen. Melvin calls it an “arbitrary” approach.
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.
It remains unclear whether the park’s deed would revert to the Defenders of Wildlife (the Kannally family originally donated their land to the group in 1976) if the state were to close the park.
And, it remains unclear whether the state can just walk away from several parks as has been proposed, according to Reese Woodling, the chairman of the parks board.
“Can we really walk away from them? How do we maintain the artifacts?” an angry Woodling asked last week. “It’s a can of worms.”
The parks board on Feb. 3 delayed action on a proposal to close Oracle and seven other parks until agency staff could offer alternatives, such as cutting hours at all 27 state parks.
“There are things we can do differently,” said Woodling, a Tucson-area rancher. “This parks board has not been sitting on our hands.”
Closing the gates at Oracle State Park seemed unthinkable for the folks gathered around a table outside the Kannally house last Saturday.
The uncertain future of the park already had led the Oracle Historical Society last week to remove several of Lee Kannally’s paintings the group had on loan to the park.
The Mediterranean-styled adobe home was completed in 1932. The Kannally family lived there until matriarch Lucy’s death in 1976.
A brilliant azure light filtered into the space last Saturday afternoon as Melvin was given a tour of the home by volunteer docent Mary Bast.
The state senator took copious notes, and, for nearly an hour after the tour, he worked with several volunteers to brainstorm ways they might persuade state officials from closing the park.
The Feb. 20 vote on closures looms, Melvin told them. The parks board likely will move the meeting location to a larger space in Phoenix.
“I would, frankly, try to pack the place,” the senator said.
For more information about the Feb. 20, and for details on the location (yet to be determined as of Tuesday, Feb. 10), go online to http://azstateparks.com/board/index.html, or call (602) 542-4174.