New Arizona Parks Chief Raises Controversy
The woman chosen to be the next director of Arizona’s state parks once carved her name into a historic park property in southeastern Arizona.
She also helped recover thousands of acres of burned parkland in San Diego County and launched an innovative system for making campground reservations online, according to azcentral.com.
The Arizona State Parks Board’s unanimous selection of Renée Bahl to take over the parks system next month has polarized state leaders.
Parks officials say she is a dynamic, experienced professional who will help lead the parks system out of a historic budget crisis.
Bahl, 40, is “a vigorous, intelligent, resourceful person who knows how to get through the most difficult of times,” said Bill Scalzo, who led the selection committee for the Arizona State Parks Board. The board voted to pick Bahl last week.
But at least one lawmaker says her selection as director is inappropriate given a vandalism incident that took place nearly a decade ago.
Bahl, a former assistant state parks director, oversaw historic preservation at the San Rafael Ranch. San Rafael, which is not open to the public, is a 3,500-acre preserve purchased by the parks board in 1999. It sits at the headwaters of the Santa Cruz River and is home to a variety of wildlife and endangered plants.
In 2001, another employee caught her etching her first name and the year into the wall of a historic adobe barn.
Bahl was disciplined but remained in her job until 2002, when she left to become director of parks and recreation for San Diego County, Calif.
State Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, criticized the selection.
“She was in a position overseeing the state’s historic preservation office,” said Patterson, the southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who wrote about the issue on his blog. “It’s hard for me to understand that someone in that position could be so clueless that they would think it would be OK to vandalize a state historic property.”
Patterson called for Bahl to issue a public apology.
Through a spokeswoman, Bahl declined to comment. Officials said they were impressed with Bahl’s education, which includes a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in public administration with a focus on natural-resource management.
Scalzo said Bahl brought up the vandalism incident during an interview and apologized for it, saying she had made a mistake.
“One thing I really appreciated is she brought that up,” Scalzo said. “She didn’t say, ‘I’ve had a perfect career, I don’t make mistakes.'”
Bahl, who will make about $140,000 a year, will take over for Ken Travous, who is retiring after 23 years leading the parks system. She will oversee a budget of about $23 million, most of it from grants and user fees, and about 270 employees.
Lawmakers swept $36 million from parks coffers in the last year, prompting the closure of three parks and threatening several more. The board is currently working to prevent further cuts proposed by the Legislature’s Republican leadership, which board members say would devastate the system.
Scalzo called criticism a distraction from the parks board’s most pressing problems.
“We need help, we don’t need criticism,” he said. “We need to have this new person come in here with everyone wishing her the best. Because she’s going to need every bit of it.”