Campers Mourn Closing of Arizona State Park
Watch today's featured video for more about this state park that is scheduled to close in June.
For Tom Fisher, the planned closure of Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction, Ariz., is the end of an era.
The park manager, a ranger for nearly three decades, speaks of the park that is slated to close by summer more as a visitor might, according to the East Valley Tribune, Phoenix.
"The legend of the Lost Dutchman is the draw – it's known worldwide," he said on a crisp January morning. "I still hike these trails when I get off from work."
Pointing to the rugged, and what he described as "lush desert landscape," Fisher knows the land, and many of its frequent visitors, by name.
The future of his staff of three other full-time rangers – and about 15 campers who also volunteer with upkeep of the grounds – is uncertain.
The state has scheduled to close 13 state parks by summer, leaving only nine parks remaining in the state – all in an attempt to make sense of a messy budget crisis.
In mid-January, the Arizona State Parks Board voted to approve the phased series of closures starting Feb. 22, culminating with the June 3 closure of Lost Dutchman, which attracted nearly 100,000 paid visitors last year. The closures were announced after the state swept $8.6 million to grapple with severe budget woes.
Ellen Bilbrey, spokeswoman for Arizona State Parks Department, said the closures were based on the economic performance of parks and not targeted according to locations or other considerations.
"It's a fiscal problem and it calls for a fiscal solution," Bilbrey said. She said although 99,000 visitors paid to enter Lost Dutchman in 2009, it cost $276,000 to keep the park opened, and revenue fell short by $9,000 last year. By comparison, Cattail Cove State Park at Lake Havasu, which will remain open, saw 85,000 visitors but is operating in the black, with more than $10,000 left over after costs.
"The closures were based on an evaluation of how much it costs to run the parks and how much revenue is generated by each park," she said.
Despite the criteria for keeping the parks opened, Bilbrey said the irony is that the parks were never meant to serve as revenue generators for the state.
"They are not designed to make money at all; they are designed to be tourism generators, to drive tourism into rural areas," she said.
Bilbrey said along with the state's efforts to shift funds to address a budget deficit, a lot more was being lost given the spartan nature of the state's economy.
"If there is a flower season, the most beautiful place to go see those flowers is Lost Dutchman State Park," she said.
Although the closure had not yet reached the rolling, rocky and sandy dunes crowded with thickets in Lost Dutchman on a January morning, Fisher said he was sure the long-timers were thinking about it.
"Come June, we're just boarding up the buildings; no more restrooms, or campgrounds and utilities," he said.
Fisher said it goes without saying the $4.1 million generated by the park for the local area last year will be sorely missed by Apache Junction and the numerous tourist traps peppered along state Route 88.
The tourist cadres or volunteers who chip in around the campgrounds and "day use area" of the park are mostly winter visitors escaping colder climates, Fisher said, while on any given day the international set mostly consists of Canadians, among others.
"A huge amount of people come in from all over the world, and a lot of them inquire about restaurants and other venues, and many end up in Apache Junction," Fisher said.
Still the stalwarts are what keep the park running, he said.
Fisher pointed to Anna and LeRoy Taylor, who spend their winters camping and chipping in around Lost Dutchman, and this day was no different.
As LeRoy Taylor righted a fallen saguaro skeleton that was knocked over from its ornately potted perch by a recent flood, Anna gave instructions.
The couple from Montana who have been coming to Lost Dutchman for the past 10 years and helping out whenever they can, fell silent when considering the closure.
"We like to see the park beautiful and clean, so we help out by volunteering," said Anna Taylor, a 73-year-old retired state worker in Montana who changed the subject while shaking her head.
She all but refused the prospect of the park closing. "I can't see it!"
Anna Taylor listed her worries: "We have a lot of vandalism even now; the trash will just pile up; the structures will get boarded up, but crowbars will take the boards down."
Taylor just shook her head while her 74-year-old husband used hands forged by a career working for railroad companies to pack the earth around the saguaro skeleton.
Fisher said one of his longtime campers who also volunteers around the park was forming a coalition of state parks volunteers to fight the closure.
Rod Villemaire, 40, of Maine, has spent winters in Arizona for six years and settled on Lost Dutchman State Park three years ago.
"There are beautiful birds that can be found here," said the avid bird watcher who also founded a national bird rescue.
The retired firefighter said he was gathering signatures from avid state park users who also serve as volunteers and planned to organize a rally at the State Capitol in February.
"We need new volunteers to come and work on the trails, even for one day, and to join the coalition to save the state parks," he said.