Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dates Change, Plan Stays the Same, San Juan River and Navajo Lake to Close

Despite a change of state employee furlough dates Navajo Lake and the quality waters of the San Juan River will still be closed for five days in the next four months beginning with a shut down on Thursday, Christmas Eve Day and again on Friday, Jan. 15, 2010.

Three other days furlough dates have since been changed to allow the parks to close on several Tuesdays in February and March while all other state employees will continue to be furloughed over several Fridays in March, April and May.

The changes were made to allow parks across the state to remain open during busy weekends and holidays.

Yet perhaps nowhere will the impact of the closures be felt more, regardless of the dates,than in the small community of Navajo Dam where virtually every business in town is dependant upon Navajo Lake state park for their livelihood.

The park and its year-round, trophy-class trout fishery draws anglers from all over the world and contributes an estimated $30 million to the state’s economy annually.

But many businesses including fishing guides, fly shops, hotels and restaurants are also being forced to take Christmas Eve day off along with the state’s employees because of the state’s furlough plan.

The park and 34 others across the state will be closed a total of five days in the next four months and any day the river and the lake at Navajo Dam are closed essentially puts locals out of business.

“It’s just plain stupid,” says Chuck Rizuto, one of the longest serving guides on the river and owner of a lodge, fly shop and guide service. “They haven’t even bothered to think about what this will do to our tourism.”

What Rizuto finds particularly galling is the fact that the park will have a skeleton crew on duty on Thursday to keep people out.

And then the following morning on Christmas Day they’ll have another skeleton crew come back in to open the park gates again.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” he says. “Why not just leave it open if they're going to have to these guys down there anyhow.”

And that’s the problem many who work on the San Juan River are having with the state’s furlough plan.

“This is ridiculous,” says Larry Johnson of the San Juan River Guides Association. “If anybody in private business ran things this way they’d go broke.”

Johnson, in a letter to state parks director, Dave Simon, said he understood the state’s need to reduce costs in the face of budget shortfalls.

But Johnson argued that the closing of the state park which includes Navajo Lake and the quality waters of the San Juan River will not only cost the state much needed revenue from lost user’s fees, but also harm local businesses dependent upon park visitors for income.

“I don’t understand why they can’t just keep the park open with a skeleton crew instead of closing it for an entire day,” Johnson said.

That’s exactly what they’re doing in Colorado where state employee furloughs have also been ordered to cut costs due to budget shortfalls.

“Our state parks are a part of everyday life for many people here,” said Deb Frazier, spokeswoman for Colorado State Parks. “And it seemed to us that the best solution was to keep them open with skeleton crews on duty.”

And that’s exactly what Johnson and others on the San Juan River have been lobbying New Mexico’s State Parks to do.

“I’m aware of and share the concerns of the guides and businesses on the San Juan,” Dave Simon, Director of State Parks says. “I sympathize with them but that (skeleton crews) wasn’t an option that was made available to us.”

Simon says after Governor Bill Richardson issued his executive order calling for the
furlough days, his parent agency immediately sought a way to keep the parks open.

Simon says he never spoke directly to Richardson about the furlough plan but that his boss, Secretary of Energy Minerals and Natural Resources, Joanna Prukop, argued his agency’s case for keeping the parks open.

Prukop was unavailable for comment and is slated to retire Dec. 31st.

Simon says his understanding of the situation was that Governor Richardson wanted to reduce the “complexity” of the furlough plan, which is why the state parks weren't allowed to use skeleton crews to keep them open.

Simon says his understanding of the furlough plan was it was designed to maximize savings by having as many state employees off, and their offices closed, on the furlough days.

The plan is estimated to save the state about $11 million while the overall budget shortfall is pegged somewhere at about $650 million.

The governor’s spokesman, Gilbert Gallegos, said the governor’s furlough plan was devised to limit exceptions to the rules but he praised Richardson’s willingness to allow the state parks to close on alternate days to reduce the impact of the shut down.

There were to be few if any exceptions to the plan except for situations impacting the public’s health, safety and welfare, Gallegos Said.

Gallegos declined to address questions regarding why staggered schedules couldn't be employed to allow the state parks to remain open with skeleton crews in place.

"I don’t have anything more to add, except this: Had Governor Richardson signed the budget proposal passed by the Legislature during the special session, the state would have had to close state parks, which would have had a truly devastating impact on local economies," Gallegos wrote in response to questions submitted by Outdoors New Mexico .

The governor's original furlough plan called for most of the closings to fall on Fridays before other holidays thus creating four day weekends for furloughed state employees.

But the original plan came at a great inconvenience to the public.

For instance, a park such as Elephant Butte Lake State Park, which sees upwards of 100,000 visitors over the Memorial Day weekend would have been closed to early birds who showed up on Friday to find a camp site.

Gallegos said Richardson showed “great flexibility” in allowing state parks to change their closure dates to allow the parks to close on Tuesdays in February and March instead, while the rest of the state employees had to adhere to the other schedule.

State parks will be closed Thursday, December 24, 2009, Friday, January 15, 2010, Tuesday, February 9, 2010, Tuesday, March 2, 2010, and Tuesday, March 23, 2010.

All other state offices will be closed Thursday, December 24, 2009, Friday, January 15, 2010, Friday, March 5, 2010, Friday, April 2, 2010, and Friday, May 28, 2010.
(for more info see press release).

But some businessmen at Navajo Dam find the alternate schedule of little consolation considering that any day the river and lake is closed they’re essentially out of business.

“I book some of my biggest trips in March, during the week,” says Rizuto. “That’s when most out-of-state tourists want to come, to avoid the weekend crowds. What am I supposed to tell them, the river’s closed for a day?”

Many Navajo Dam Businesses were equally upset that much of the planning for the closures was kept under wraps and done without public involvement (see related story ).

Sen. Steve Scharer, R-San Juan says the state parks and businesses at Navajo Dam are simply pawns in the governor’s ongoing battle with the legislature over the budget.

“This just another case of his total disregard for the citizens,” he said. “He doesn’t care about them. It’s all about him.”

Scharer said that by closing revenue generating state parks and doing the same to related businesses is counterproductive to the state’s economy and senseless considering the minimal budget savings it produces.

The furloughs are another in a series of moves crafted by Richardson to address the budget shortfall including a state hiring freeze, layoffs of political appointees and suspension of all capital outlay spending including his own $250,000 allocation for habitat improvement projects on the San Juan River at Navajo Dam.

That money was earmarked for a diversion at Rex Smith Wash at Texas Hole to keep silt and sediment from washing into the river and destroying fish habitat.

The Governor's furlough plan comes on the heels of his veto of a legislative budget fix offered during a special session last fall including a 7.6-percent across the board budget cut and a reduction of politically appointed positions within state government.

In the meantime state park rangers will be on duty during the state park closure dates to keep trespassers out and will issue citations if necessary, Simon says.

Anyone convicted of criminal trespass while hunting or fishing could see their fishing privileges administratively revoked for up to three years.

Governor Bill Richardson issued the following press release on Feb. 5, 2010

Governor Bill Richardson Announces State Parks Will  Remain Open During Furloughs

SANTA FE- Governor Richardson today announced that all New Mexico State Parks will
remain open during the remainder of state employee furlough days. Governor Richardson
announced the change after receiving dozens of requests from New Mexico residents, local
municipalities and businesses asking to keep parks open because of concerns about the negative
economic impact closures could have on local economies.

“New Mexico State Parks offer fabulous scenery, a variety of family-friendly activities and are
great tourist magnets that drive economic development in our local communities,” Governor
Richardson said. “This plan will not only enable the state to continue saving money but will keep
our parks open for everyone to enjoy.”

Listening to constituent concerns, Governor Richardson worked with State Parks and the State
Personnel Office to come up with the plan that will still require State Park employees to take
three remaining furlough days. Those employees who are needed to work to keep parks open on
designated furlough days, will be required to take alternate furlough days.

Monday, December 07, 2009

San Juan Lock Down - River, Lake to be Closed by Furloughs

Anglers headed up to Navajo Lake State Park for a little fishing the day before Christmas might be surprised to find the river and lake closed to the public due to state employee furloughs imposed by Governor Bill Richardson.

“This is ridiculous,” says Larry Johnson of the San Juan River Guides Association and owner of the Soaring Eagle Lodge.

Johnson argued that closing of the state park which includes Navajo Lake and the quality waters of the San Juan River at Navajo Dam will not only cost the state much needed revenue from user’s fees but also harm local businesses dependent upon park visitors for income.

“I don’t understand why they couldn’t just keep the park open with a skeleton crew instead of closing it for an entire day,” Johnson said in a telephone interview.

Ironically that’s what Navajo State Park employees will be doing the following day when they open the gates back up again on Christmas morning.

The river and lake is also slated to be closed to anglers on Jan. 15, the Friday before Martin Luther King, under the governor's furlough plan.

Johnson said he first heard about the closings from the local state park employees who had been informing local fishing guides and other businesses in the area about the impending closings.

Outdoors New Mexico had heard the same rumors and had been attempting to confirm the reported closings last week but was stymied by a wall of silence from the governor’s appointed public information officers and state agency directors.

Simon, the governor’s state parks director, declined to respond to calls for details about the reported closings and his response to emails was to refer all questions to the governors’ office.

The Governor’s primary spokesman, Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Gallegos, initially dismissed questions about the reported state park closings.

“We have not yet finalized the furlough plan that will be presented to the State Personnel Board which means it is premature to speculate on the impact to state parks or any state services,” Gallegos wrote in a Dec 2, 2009 response to our inquiry.

But by Monday Dec. 7 Gallegos was issuing a press release stating that State Parks would be given a reprieve to allow staggered furlough dates so the state’s 34 parks could remain open during “popular holiday weekends in the spring.”

The press release notes that the furlough plan is still subject to approval by the State Personnel Board.

The board, all governor appointees, is slated to meet Dec. 16, 2009, in Albuquerque at the National Hispanic Center at 1701 Fourth St. SW at 8:30 a.m. to consider the furlough plan, said Sheila Zamora, Board Administrator for the State Personnel Board.

The meeting is open to the public and anyone who wishes to comment on the furlough policy could send emails addressed to the board through her at sheila.zamora@state.nm.us.

The Director of the State Personnel Board, Sandra Perez, also a Richardson appointee, declined to return calls and email messages seeking further specifics about the board’s policy making process.

The governor’s latest furlough plan includes not only the day before Christmas but four other dates in the upcoming year including Jan. 15, March 5, April 2 and May 28.

Two of those dates fall in line with other holidays which effectively create four day weekends for furloughed state employees.

One of those dates is in conjunction with Memorial Day weekend and Johnson had questioned the logic in closing a state park such as Navajo Lake State Park the day before the beginning of one of the summer’s busiest outdoor recreational weekends.

“Imagine showing up to claim a campsite the night before and finding the gates locked,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Such a closure at Elephant Butte State Park in southern New Mexico which routinely sees upwards of 100,000 visitors on Memorial Day weekend would have wreaked havoc, Johnson noted.

Apparently state parks administrators thought so too, and were successful in sparing themselves such a scenario but not before unchecked rumors and misinformation had already been spread.

Now anglers hoping to get a jump on the yuletide holiday by visiting the San Juan on Christmas Eve are officially out of luck.

Marti Niman, Public Information Officer for State Parks, finally confirmed on Monday that park gates to day use areas on the river at Navajo Dam would be closed on Christmas Eve day but she couldn’t say whether anglers slipping past the locked entrances, some just installed, would be treated as trespassers.

Niman said she hoped to have an official press release regarding the Christmas Eve day closure and others out sometime this week.

The river and lake will also be closed an off limits to anglers on Jan. 15, the Friday before Martin Luther King, under the furlough plan.

Initial reports from state park employees about the closing on Navajo Lake State Park suggested that security guards would be hired to patrol the lake and the river to keep trespassers out because park rangers would have the day off.

All of which drew scoffs from some like Johnson who questioned the logic behind the state’s plan in a Dec. 4, 2009 guide association letter to Simon.

“Does the costs savings of furloughed onsite employees outweigh the loss of revenue, hiring of security officers to prohibit the public’s access to the parks, and the costs of constructing new physical barriers at multiple park access points? ” Johnson asked.

Simon had yet to reply to the guide association’s letter by the time the governor’s office issued its latest press release.

Yet despite the park’s closing, fly shop owner, Ray Johnston of Float and Fish in Navajo Dam, says he will still be open Christmas Eve day.

“That’s my customer appreciation day,” Johnston says.” Been doing it for years.”

The shop will be open as usual and will be serving up free red chile stew, pinto beans and tortillas for customers.

“We usually get a pretty good crowd,” he says. “People come from all over to fish the river during the holidays you know. That’s why I just don’t understand what they (state parks ) were thinking.”

Johnston said he'd have to cancel some fishing trips he had scheduled for Christmas Eve day and will have to do the same for upcoming furlough dates too.

The world class San Juan River brings in thousands of fly fishing fanatics each year to chase big trout on small flies and contributes upwards of $30 to 40 million to the state's economy.

And while news of the state park closure might keep some anglers away, others might see this as an exciting opportunity to sneak down to the river and have the place all to themselves for a change.

In the meantime, Richardson’s battle with the state legislature over a projected budget shortfall of about $650 million continues.

Richardson called the state legislature in special session recently where lawmakers crafted bills calling for 7.6 percent across-the-board cuts to all state agencies and a reduction in the number of Richardson’s politically appointed positions.

Richardson declined to sign the laws and instead offered up his own executive remedies including the furloughs which are expected to produce about $11 million dollars in savings.

Richardson is also laying off 59 state employees holding politically appointed positions, has left another 49 politically appointed positions vacant and had already imposed a freeze on all state government hiring.

This comes on the heels of reports that state government has grown a reported 50 percent during Richardson’s two terms.

Richardson has also ordered a freeze on all legislators’ capital outlay projects not already underway including his own $250,000 allocation for habitat improvement projects on the San Juan River.

That money had been earmarked for use in diverting runoff from Rex Smith wash at Texas Hole, a primary source of silt and sediment coming into the river which many blame for a perceived decline in the fishery’s quality.

Popular Posts