Bipartisan effort led to the birth of Catalina State Park

By Tom Prezelski

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Arizona State Parks System. In 1957, after decades of abortive starts in the face of ambivalence from the State’s political leadership and resistance from cattlemen, a coalition of conservationists, sportsmen, and business leaders pushed a reluctant legislature to pass a bill creating the State Parks Board. Democratic Governor Ernest McFarland enthusiastically signed it into law, making the preservation and expansion of state parks a priority for the state’s executives regardless of party for the next 30 years.

Folks who have been reading this column already know that a conservation ethic had long been in vogue in Pima County, and that two natural treasures, Colossal Cave and Tucson Mountain Park, had been protected as parks. In both cases, a state park was considered at some point, but interest from the state was simply not there and no mechanism existed to create such things even if it was. The origin story of Catalina State Park happened quite differently, but similar constituencies and issues were involved. Nonetheless, the tale became quite complicated.

Re-thinking urban development
The early 1970s saw the beginning of a nascent movement to re-think the pace of urban development in Pima County. While this could be seen as part of the nationwide turn to environmental consciousness following the first Earth Day in 1970, local efforts were unique in character, intensity, and level of organization, having already formed a very active group called the Southern Arizona Environmental Council (SAEC).

In 1972, a Tempe-based developer named John Ratliff made public plans for a massive development of 17,000 homes on the 4,200-acre site of the old Rancho Romero between the Oracle Highway and the Catalina Mountains. The SAEC then reached out to create a broad amalgam of environmentalists, sportsmen, recreationists and business interests which came to be called The Rancho Romero Coalition.

Their efforts got the attention of Representative Charles W. King, a Republican legislator from the area who would spearhead efforts at the capitol. Soon the concept for the park encompassed some 14,000 acres along the drainage of the Cañada del Oro, including not only Rancho Romero but also a patchwork of private and state trust land.

Reluctant supervisors
The Democratic majority on the Board of Supervisors was initially reluctant to take on the issue. The success of a 1973 bond election which set aside $4.5 million to acquire “greenbelts” was seen as a sign of public support for a park at Rancho Romero, and supporters hoped that this would be a potential source of revenue for its acquisition. This was not to be so easy, however.

With the election of conservation-minded Democratic Supervisor Ron Asta from District 1 in 1972, advocates of preservation finally had a friend on the Board. Asta’s organizing efforts bore fruit, and, under intense public pressure, the board voted against a rezoning of Rancho Romero in September 1973, putting a hold on plans to build there. Asta’s colleagues still proved largely ambivalent on the issue.

A change of heart
In February 1974, in the face of public pressure, crusty conservative Democrat Emmett S. “Bud” Walker of Ajo finally came around to supporting the idea of using the greenbelt bond to purchase Rancho Romero. Joined by Eastside Republican Conrad Joyner, there were now three votes to spend the money. Still in opposition was Westside Supervisor Joseph Castillo, a stand which may well have contributed to the end of his political career, as he would lose to the environmentally minded David Yetman in the Democratic Primary two years later.

Meanwhile, Representative King’s bill moved through the legislature. Despite the proposal’s proven broad support in southern Arizona, the State Parks board was hostile to the idea. Local leaders suspected that this had its roots, at least partially, in regional rivalry. For their own part, some members of the board expressed concern that creating the park would encourage environmentalists to ask for more. Nonetheless, the bill passed both houses with large majorities. The bill was signed into law by Republican Governor “One Eyed Jack” Williams, but the fight was far from over.

Swapping land
At this point, the story becomes somewhat sordid. First, Ratliff balked at the county’s $3 million offer for Rancho Romero, which was valued at more than twice as much. This was assuaged by a deal brokered by Representative King, which involved a swap with State Trust Land needed for Ratliff’s Rancho Vistoso project on the other side of Oracle Highway and an implicit promise from county officials to accommodate the developer with the necessary rezoning to make it work. Meanwhile, gentleman rancher and developer Lloyd Golder III, who had his own expansive plans for the area, made a number of demands of the state and county, many of which could not be accommodated. Golder would remain a critic of both the park and the process which created it.

What was by now called Catalina State Park was greatly reduced from the original proposal to about 5,500 acres. Even this diminished area required a complicated and delicate series of land swaps between county, state and federal agencies. After numerous delays, the recalcitrant State Parks Board was prodded into action by Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt, and the park finally opened to the public in 1983.

By this time, there had long been bipartisan support for the park at the county level, but the role of the Supervisors at this point was largely one of advocacy. This was still critical at this point, as the viability of the park remained tenuous. Driven by the constitutional demand for maximum return for State Trust Lands, the costs for maintaining the leases on critical pieces of the park had become untenable by 1987. It took an enormous statewide land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service to resolve the issue and save the park.

Today Catalina State Park regularly sees well over 150,000 visitors a year, marking it as a success by most measures. But the real victory, sought by the alliance of grassroots supporters who came together in 1972, was that a precious piece of our Sonoran Desert was saved from sprawl. Even though county leaders were initially dragged kicking and screaming, their support proved decisive in making the park happen. The issue was critical to advancing the conservation ethic locally and remains an example of Pima County’s unique political culture.


Tom Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West was a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards. Tom has also been a guest on the Voices of the West radio program.



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