Arizona Parks Find a Way to Survive Through the Pandemic

Joey (in life vest) and Daisy wait while Haley Fryling of Tucson gets ready for a boat ride at Patagonia Lake State Park boat-in campsite. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Poole)

(CN) — Like many Americans, Haley Fryling spent a lot of time outdoors this past year.

A retired speech and language therapist, Fryling turned to nature to unwind from the stress of the pandemic. The Tucson resident already had two kayaks, then after a windblown failed attempt to cross Patagonia Lake last year, she added a small motor boat to her flotilla.

She and her chihuahua Daisy camp as often as possible and have visited multiple Arizona state parks during the pandemic. Her favorite is Patagonia Lake.

“I like the option you have to be near people or to be isolated, if you want,” said Fryling, 63, who intends to use her state parks pass a lot this coming year.

She’s not alone.

In 2020, about 2.9 million people came from across the nation to Arizona’s 30 state parks and historic sites, which include Picacho Peak, where the westernmost Civil War battle was fought to a draw; the Tombstone courthouse where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday faced trial; and a memorial to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, 19 firefighters killed in a 2013 wildfire.

Mark Johnson, a concrete business owner from South Carolina, drove down from Tucson to visit the Tombstone courthouse. It was Johnson’s second trip to the museum, where admission is $7.

“It’s as good as any I’ve been in,” the concrete business owner said.

Though 2020 visitation was down about 6% from 2019, according to the Arizona Office of Tourism, some major sites, many indoors, saw steep declines during the pandemic.

At Southern Arizona’s Kartchner Caverns, a big state park money-maker where tours have been limited to six people and social distancing is difficult, visitation was down 53% from 2019. Visitation dropped 88% at Riordan Mansion, a historic site in Flagstaff that was closed early last year.

But Lake Havasu State Park saw a 23% increase, and Roper Lake visitation jumped 21%, the tourism office reported.

There are two campgrounds at Patagonia Lake State Park — one on the shore catering largely to RVs and other wheeled vehicles, plus a scattering of boat-in sites that ring the lake. The park is home to an annual mariachi festival and other large events that were canceled this year, and social distancing created a squeeze when park manager Colt Alford had to limit entries.

“During the summer, it wouldn’t be unusual for us to close down at 7:30 in the morning. We were turning away 400, 500 vehicles,” Alford said.

Fryling has camped several times at Patagonia, her backyard playground at just more than an hour’s drive from Tucson. She has two five-night stays reserved for the summer, she said.

State parks are not suffering much overall despite the pandemic, said State Parks & Trails Communications director Michelle Thompson.

“Things have been going really well,” Thompson said. “For the past five years, revenue has been going up. Visitation has been going up.”

Legislative efforts are afoot to boost funding via Arizona’s lottery, a former funding source that was cut more than a decade ago.

In 1991, Arizona voters approved a plan to give state parks and the Arizona Game and Fish Department $10 million each annually from lottery proceeds. So in 1992, the non-profit Arizona Heritage Alliance was created to help the parks apply those funds.

Every year until 2008, the state transferred $10 million each for parks and Game and Fish. Then in 2008, a global recession prompted the state to sweep the funds from the State Parks Heritage Fund into the general fund, said alliance Executive Director Lani Lott.

State parks in Arizona lost about a quarter of their funding in the sweep, which sparked 13 park closures.

The Tombstone courthouse and Picacho Peak were both on the original closure list but remained open. The prospect of closing Picacho Peak, a popular hiking and wildflower viewing spot between Phoenix and Tucson, prompted public outcry.

After the funding crisis, the alliance battled alongside allies in the Senate and House to convince legislators and the governor to reinstate the fund, said Executive Director Lani Lott.

“We tried for 10 years,” Lott said. “Every year we had a bill.”

In 2019, they succeeded via a state Senate bill eventually signed by Governor Doug Ducey, but there was a catch. Although the State Parks Heritage Fund has been reinstated, the annual lottery transfers won’t start until 2029.

This year there are two bills to immediately replace the $10 million, one in the House, one in the Senate. The House effort would give state parks a one-time $10 million boost from lottery funds. The Senate bill would simply start the $10 million lottery injection immediately, Lott said.

Both bills are in committees, she said.

New parks are on the horizon.

A marina at Lake Havasu, dubbed the Havasu Riviera, will increase access for boaters this summer, and Rockin’ River State Park in the Verde Valley, which is likely a couple years away, will feature mostly day use but could include a rustic campground, Thompson said.

For Fryling, getting outside during the past year of isolation has been a godsend. 

“I’m outside all the time. It’s huge. You can feel safe outside,” she said.

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