- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 6, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - A ranch that has largely sat dormant since being bought by Arizona nearly a decade ago is being turned into a state park that will include campsites and recreational opportunities along the scenic Verde River.

The recently approved Arizona budget allocates $4 million to turn the Rockin’ River Ranch into a state park, marking a dramatic turnaround from the Great Recession when the park system was struggling to keep existing locations open.

The origins of the park date to those tumultuous economic times.

Park officials in 2008 used $7 million from a conservation fund to buy the location, considered an environmental pearl because of its location along the free-flowing Verde, where bald eagles fish.

Also, “it’s one of the best remaining habitat for native fish in the state,” said Pat Graham, state director for The Nature Conservancy.

To then-Parks Director Ken Travous, it was just a matter of time before legislators would spend that money on other programs and services with the state’s finances stressed by the housing crisis.

“We could see the writing on the wall,” Travous recalled. “We had that money sitting here and one of those priorities was always the Verde River.”

So the State Parks Board authorized purchasing the ranch located in Camp Verde, 90 miles (145 kilometers) north of Phoenix. Graham’s organization helped Arizona speed the deal along by buying the property and flipping it to the state.

That made the ranch state property, but there was no money to develop it and operate it as a park. So Rockin’ River sat quietly, used mostly by a horse-boarding concessionaire.

That’s about to change.

This fall will see primitive camping and construction of limited facilities, such as recreational vehicle sites without utility hookups on the 209-acre property that features a mile of riverfront, cottonwood trees, pastures and desert areas.

The parks system has hired a consultant to plan roads, utilities, camping and other facilities. Future development of amenities such as picnic areas, roads and utility lines will be based on the consultants’ recommendations and public input during “listening” meetings planned over the summer, parks director Sue Black said.

After a “soft opening” this year, the idea is to have the park in full operation by the fall of 2018, she said.

“I just want people to have the chance to get out in the park as soon as possible,” Black said. “I can’t get it open soon enough.”

Gov. Doug Ducey called it “another impressive piece of our state’s exceptional landscape.”

Camp Verde economic development director Steve Ayers said he made a pitch for developing the park to Black after she took the job in 2015. Black promptly visited the property, declared that it would become a park and has since worked diligently to make it happen, Ayers said.

Camp Verde Mayor Charles German said making the ranch a park helps preserve the river in its natural state and should attract visitors who’ll benefit the local economy.

“We would like to see this as a vacation destination place rather than just filling the entire Verde Valley with rooftops, German said.

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