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State parks projects proceed despite AG investigation

November 11, 2018

While the state Attorney General’s office conducts a criminal investigation of Arizona State Parks and Trails and Sue Black, director of State Parks, is on administrative leave, development of projects along the Colorado River continues.

Black was placed on administrative leave more than a week ago after allegations that she ignored former Parks and Trails compliance officer and tribal liaison, Will Russell’s warnings that the agency was building on Native American archaeological sites at Lake Havasu State Park.

The project at Lake Havasu State Park includes modernized restroom facilities and the construction of more than a dozen beachfront cabins. The renovations would serve the park’s estimated 500,000 visitors per year.

Under state regulations, State Parks needs to prevent the destruction of Native American antiquities. Russell said in an earlier interview that the agency circumvented those requirements and proceeded with construction, without consulting the tribes. He said he warned parks managers of native artifacts at the site prior to construction, echoing a 2006 survey from the Arizona Department of Transportation, which held similar findings about the area.

Along with the project at Lake Havasu State Park, the agency is giving three other parks a facelift. On the southwestern edge of Havasu, Cattail Cove’s current RV park and marina will be renovated and new amenities, and a restaurant will be added to the area. In Parker, a project at Buckskin Mountain State Park and River Island will lead to new development, facilities and recreational resources.

In coming years Havasu Riviera State Park, on the south side of Havasu, currently near-empty land will become a new neighborhood with public and private areas for Havasu visitors and residents.

The Havasu Riviera project is one of the first private-public partnerships State Parks has been part of, said Luke Still, chief financial officer with Desert Land Group, the real estate contractor working on the project.

Still said it’s common for Arizona State Land Trust or the Bureau of Land Management to lease land in the area but is a relatively new way for State Parks to develop land.

“It was I think a goal of State Parks when Governor Ducey came into office to look at other avenues to develop State Park lands and make that a more sustainable system,” he said.

Still said Desert Land Group submits construction plans to the state for approval but does not directly work with archaeologists before or during construction. Third party companies also inspect and document detailed reports about the project during construction and the contractor also submits those for the state to keep in its records after the project is completed.

“From a private development standpoint we comply with whatever agency requirements are put forth in front of us,” Still said. “And usually that involves a lot of other third party studies from experts that are a lot smarter than we are to provide the information that’s needed for those agencies to sign off or not or have additional requirements.”

Before construction started, Still said several studies were required which the Army Corps of Engineers reviewed.

“That land has been planned for over 20 years for the use that it’s now being developed for and they started and stopped project planning several different times over the last couple of decades so I’m not sure what’s in their file,” Still said.

Jim Salscheider, president of Lake Havasu Marine Association, offered a defense for Black, saying she has moved projects forward and improved State Parks in Arizona in her three years as director.

“Sue Black is being unnecessarily criticized we believe,” Salscheider said.

The Marine Association is a nonprofit that does volunteer work like clean up along the lake shore. Salscheider has been volunteering with the group for 10 years and seen State Parks go through three different directors in that time. He said the administrative issues the agency is facing are likely the result of several agencies being involved in the projects and Black should not be punished for them.

He credited Black’s work as the reason Arizona State Parks and Trails won the Gold Medal for being the best-managed state park system in the nation in 2017. Salscheider said Black was able to figure out how to develop Havasu Riviera with a private company, something that others couldn’t figure out for 15 years.

She has also significantly improved the other State Parks along the Colorado River, including the Lake Havasu State Park project, Salscheider said.

“An awful lot of this wouldn’t have happened without Sue Black and John Guthrie (State Parks manager of western region). They’re a dynamic pair and they really get things done and their achievements are incredible,” he said. “So to, unfairly, I believe, target her for some miscellaneous administrative issues is just wrong.”

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