Gateways to the Southwest: The Story of Arizona State Parks

“Confusion about state versus national parks is a familiar situation in the West,” Jay Price notes (p. ix). The national park system holds an auspicious presence in Arizona, yet it is the state parks that are Price’s focal point in Gateways to the Southwest. From Earl Pomeroy through Alfred Runte and Hal Rothman, historians have looked at the national parks and tourism over the years. Now, Price probes into Arizona’s state parks. “In the shadow of these large and impressive national parks exists an even bigger collection of state, county, local and private parks, museums and monuments,” he observes (p. xiv). The author unabashedly concedes that “state parks seemed unnecessary in a region with an attitude of ‘if it’s worth saving, the federal government would already have done it'” (p. 89). Still, Price makes a strong case for the significance of Arizona’s state parks.

Created in 1955, the Arizona state park system fits nicely into the post-World War II recreation and tourism boom ably chronicled by Samuel P. Hays in Beauty, Health and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955–1980 (Cambridge, 1987). In fact, Price builds upon Hays’ study quite effectively. Americans more and more took advantage of their increased leisure time after the war to inundate the nation’s parks (state as well as national). The successes of Arizona’s park advocates along with their disappointments are skillfully portrayed in Gateway to the Southwest. Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt (1978–87) “harnessed public sentiment to support [state] park projects, tapping into a growing urban, pro-environment constituency” (p. 112).

The late 1970s and the 1980s were a trying time for conservation issues in the American West. Industrial users of western resources such as mining ventures or timber concerns united to fight environmental lobbyists. President Ronald Reagan and his secretary of the interior, James Watt, were “infamous for cutting back many of the federal programs” of the 1960s and 1970s relating to the environmental and recreation issues (p. 111). In Arizona, between 1979 and 1982, Governor Bruce Babbitt, who had deep roots in protecting nature, battled the state legislature over environmental matters at the height of the Sagebrush Rebellion when state governments throughout the West were attempting to wrest control of federal land policies from bureaucrats in Washington, D. C. Babbitt, along with Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado, challenged the power of legislatures to dictate the environmental policies of their respective states.

After Babbitt left office, the state of the Arizona state parks seemingly changed overnight. His successor, Governor Evan Mecham suggested eliminating $10 million from the state parks’ budget. As Mecham’s special assistant Sam Steiger said, the new administration was not “aggressively seeking” the expansion of state parks (p. 137). Price concludes that the Babbitt legacy illustrates the importance of having an ardent supporter of parks in a position of leadership. In the post-Babbitt years the Arizona state park system was forced to operate with a starkly reduced budget. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, Arizona state parks officials helped to usher in a “new attitude” toward resource management (p. 176). Throughout the interior West, such community agencies were forced to adopt a new attitude, which accentuated partnerships over acquisitions.

M. Guy Bishop, an independent historian, lives at Woods Cross, Utah. Dr. Bishop’s research focuses on the environmental history of the American West. Currently he is writing about the proposed Kaiparowits power project that fell under pressure from environmentalists in the mid-1970s.