FLORENCE — A state grant program for outdoor recreation and historic preservation has money again for the first time in years.

“After 11 years, our state’s executive and legislative branches finally came together to fund the State Parks Heritage Fund to maintain and upgrade the growing number of parks, trails and historic preservation projects that have languished or are newly proposed in every municipality, county and tribal area in our state,” state Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said in an announcement from the Arizona Heritage Alliance.

“I’m excited to see what projects start coming out of the ground to enhance the communities in which they’re located.”

The new state budget includes $5 million to fund the Arizona State Parks Heritage Fund.

In Florence, the Heritage Fund was key in saving the Chapel of the Gila, the Silver King Hotel, Florence High School’s “Old Main” classroom building and the William Clarke House, the office of the Florence Reminder & Blade-Tribune.

Florence received at least nine Governor’s Heritage Preservation Honor Awards between 2003 and 2015, primarily for buildings rehabilitated with Heritage Funds.

The State Parks Heritage Fund was restored in the 2019 legislative session via Senate Bill 1241, sponsored by then-Sen. Kate Brophy McGee of Phoenix, but wasn’t provided any money. The plan was to use Arizona Lottery funds in 2029. But this session, Shope and Rep. Joanne Osborne of Goodyear introduced bills that gained strong bipartisan support in both chambers. Through the budget negotiation process, the final outcome was $5 million.

Through a matching grant process to be developed by the Arizona State Parks Board in consultation with staff of Arizona State Parks & Trails and the State Historic Preservation Office, the funds will be allocated as follows:

  • 50% on local, regional and state parks for outdoor recreation and open space development, restoration or renovation;
  • 30% on local, regional and state historic preservation projects;
  • 10% on local, regional and state non-motorized trails;
  • And 10% on outdoor and environmental education.

Osborne said, “My family came to Arizona in the late 1800s. Our state’s history can be found in so many places and needs to be preserved for future generations. Arizona is a unique and special place from its glorious lands to incredible places. Let’s keep the West alive and our Arizona way. It was an honor to carry the bill to advocate for funding for the State Parks Heritage Fund.”

“The Arizona Heritage Alliance never gave up advocating for the restoration of the State Parks Heritage Fund,” said Janice Miano, past president and former executive director of the alliance. “We just kept at it year-after-year to honor the legacy of long-serving board members who passed away during the funding hiatus — Brian Pinney, Beth Woodin, and Tom Woods — and to benefit future generations of Arizona residents and visitors.”

The importance of Arizona’s local, regional and state parks, trails and open spaces became more evident as elected officials, businesses and residents worked to overcome the social and economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Public parks and open spaces provided Arizonans the space for socially distanced recreation and respite during these challenging times.

In a recent study conducted by the National Parks and Recreation Association, three in five U.S. residents — more than 190 million people — visited a park, trail, public open space or other recreation facility at least once during the first three months of the pandemic (mid-March through mid-June 2020).

A 2020 survey by Gallup and the Center for the Future of Arizona finds widespread agreement among Arizonans on a broad range of policy objectives for the next decade, including the environment. Arizonans overwhelmingly appreciate the state’s natural beauty, with 91% rating it as “excellent” or “good.”

A similarly high proportion (92%) say it is important for the state to “preserve and protect its rivers, natural areas and wildlife,” one of the highest levels of consensus seen in the Gallup Arizona survey.

The Arizona Heritage Alliance has been a longtime advocate for both the Arizona State Parks Heritage Fund and Arizona Game and Fish Heritage Fund.

According to Samantha Coffman, executive director of the Arizona Parks and Recreation Association, “The work of the Arizona Heritage Alliance has been significant for our state’s parks, trails, open space and cultural sites. Protecting funding for grants made available through the Heritage Fund is vital to Arizona’s quality of life and the overall economy.

“Monies received have positively impacted our state over the last 27 years. The Arizona Parks and Recreation Association and our members greatly appreciate the years-long effort the alliance board has put into advocating for permanent authorization of funding for this key program.”

Russ Jones, current board president of the alliance and a former state representative from Yuma, said, “Communities may have the opportunity to double their impact by using State Parks Heritage Fund grant dollars to draw down a match from the National Park Service’s Land and Water Conservation Fund.” The LWCF is one of the nation’s most important conservation programs, responsible for protecting parks, wildlife refuges and recreation areas at the federal, state and local levels.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.