“Are parks and open spaces essential to our state economy?” the Arizona survey asked.
“Absolutely!” said 92 percent of the Arizonans surveyed.
“Do you visit parks at least a couple times a year?”
“Yup,” said 86 percent.
“How about once a week?”
“Sure do,” said 41 percent.
“Are parks just important to you personally—economics aside?”
“Yes,” said 74 percent.
And then the clincher: “Do you know where the money for your parks comes from?”
“Well, uh…not really,” admitted 82 percent.
These were the findings of Arizona Forward, a park-supporting coalition of citizens, businesses, and universities recently formed in Arizona. The group was chartered after state lottery monies dedicated to parks and wilderness protection were swiped by the general appropriations fund—resulting in one state park shutting down and many others teetering on the edge of closure.
Arizona Forward is an offshoot of a 42-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to general sustainability issues—so its leaders know a bit about advocacy. Did they recruit volunteers and launch fundraisers? Did they scout out public-private partnerships? Did they propose revenue-enhancing alternatives?
The answer to all of these questions is no.
Arizona Forward instead began with more fundamental goals:
1. To understand Arizonans’ views of their parks’ economic (and intangible) value.
2. To assess public awareness of where park funding comes from.
3. To use their findings to educate citizens on both the economic impact of parks and the funding required to sustain them.
The Arizona Forward survey findings are, I suspect, typical of many states across the country. Citizens know parks enrich their economies. They use and value their parks. And yet, they may not know exactly where the money comes from to keep them going. They hear of the need to cut public services in a bad economy, and so they may just accept park closures.
After all, we’re in a recession, the reasoning goes. And amenities must be sacrificed.
But what about when lawmakers ransack funds designated for parks? Is that an acceptable approach to budget appropriations? Arizona Forward says no—and they are hoping that, with some education, millions of Arizona voters will adopt a zero-tolerance policy for such practices. So far, as director Diane Brossart told me in an interview, the public response has been overwhelming.
What might happen if citizens across the country understood the economic impact of their parks? What might change if legislators who raided park funds could count on voters’ wrath?
Maureen Hannan is the Senior Editor for Parks & Recreation magazine.