Verde River Greenway: Arizona's longest park

Most Verde Valley residents are familiar with the six State Parks located here. What they may not be aware of is the history of how each one came to be. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Arizona State Parks system, the Verde Independent and The Bugle are presenting a six-part series recounting the history of each park's acquisition. We also extend our thanks to Charles Eatherly of Arizona State Parks and Jay Price, author of "Gateways to the Southwest: the Story of Arizona State Parks," for the historic research used in this series.

Perhaps the most ambitious plan ever dreamed up by the Arizona State Parks is the notion of creating a park that would extend down both sides of the Verde River for the 36 miles running from the Tuzigoot Bridge to Beasley Flats.

In spite of the obstacles, it is a plan that continues to move forward.

The Greenway is, once again, a park that owes its existence to former Gov. Bruce Babbitt.

Long recognizing the opportunity to save one of the state's last free-flowing rivers, Arizona State Parks acquired the Dead Horse Ranch in 1972. The ranch included more than one mile of riverfront property.

In the summer of 1985, then-Gov. Babbitt took a walk down the river with State Land Commissioner Bob Lane and Dan Campbell of the Nature Conservancy.

When they finished their walk, Babbitt asked Lane to start making maps identifying the ownership of properties adjacent to the river in the proximity of Dead Horse.

He then asked Campbell to quietly contact those owners and see if they might be willing to sell some of their property so the state could create a riparian sanctuary along the banks.

Babbitt requested the talks with the property owners be kept quiet, primarily because the Legislature had yet to approve any money and for the most part was likely unaware of the ambitious idea he was hatching.

Campbell received a positive response to most of his inquiries. Not wanting to miss any opportunities to acquire the land, the Nature Conservancy had begun purchasing property for the project.

The first acquisition was a parcel still owned by Cap Ireys, the man who sold Dead Horse Ranch to the State in 1972.

As an interesting side note, Ireys had sold the 285-acre Dead Horse Ranch to the state in 1972 for $125,000, considerably below market value and below what he had originally paid for the property.

However, Ireys had become somewhat disenchanted with the development of Dead Horse Ranch State Park. When it came time to purchase Ireys' remaining 18-acre parcel and small adjacent parcel, he asked for and received full market value ­­ another $125,000.

In April 1986, the state Legislature passed the Verde River Protection Bill, legislation that enabled the state to spend $2 million to purchase land along the river.

The bill was part of an overall plan to replace habitat for the bald eagle and other endangered species displaced by construction of the Central Arizona Project.

The legislation also authorized further purchases of property along the river by establishing the need to further protect the river and to protect and enhance the riparian habit.

In May 1986, The Verde River Acquisition Task Force was formed. It was made up of representatives from State Parks, State Land Department, the Governor's Office, Nature Conservancy and Arizona Game & Fish.

The group concentrated on properties between Tuzigoot Bridge and the Bridgeport Bridge in Cottonwood, compiling a list of 35 parcels listed by priority. The parcels ranged in size from one acre to 80 acres.

They also addressed some of the realities inherent in what they were trying to do. First they realized that the budget would not cover the cost of all the listed priorities. They also decided they would only deal with willing sellers.

The task force also decided to bring the idea to both the property owners and the community at the same time in an effort to generate regional support. That decision saved the state a lot of money in the form of reduced asking prices and outright donations of property.

By the time Bruce Babbitt left office in January 1987, 259 acres had been acquired at a cost of $1.5 million.

Two years later, the state had acquired 318 acres. More than $250,000 of it was donated.

In May 1988, an ad hoc advisory committee was formed. It included representatives for the Verde Valley communities, State Parks, Game & Fish, the U.S. Forest Service, Audubon Society and interested citizens.

They assumed the role of planning the Greenway's future and further expanding its holdings.

They also decided it was their role to promote the project and its role in preserving the river. In doing so they, among other things, created Verde River Days.

The event has been held annually since 1988 to ensure that the river's primacy in the health of the community remains at the forefront.

Today, the Verde River Greenway includes 600 acres and continues to grow.

The State Parks Board decided to lengthen the project in May 2005.

Because of the continuing support from the Verde Valley communities, the board voted to more than triple the length of the Greenway, taking it from its existing upper limit of Tuzigoot Bridge, all the way to Beasley Flats, down river from Camp Verde.

Recently the board voted to acquire a parcel in Camp Verde, the first piece outside of the original boundaries.

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