October 2022
Crafting a Crown Jewel
Granite Dells Regional Park and Preserve is gradually coming together

A regional park built around the Granite Dells is on the drawing board, but it could be a decade before it becomes a reality. Nothing like this plan has been achieved in the area before.

Along with popular pressure from residents of Prescott and the region, the Save the Dells activist group has been a significant factor in bringing the concept to the forefront, making it a priority for six years. Past conservation chair Joe Trudeau put together the early vision of joining the various pieces of public land into a larger project, creating the first maps to illustrate it. Tom Rusing and Walt Anderson have been among the leaders in this initiative.

Bit by bit

Rusing tells us that some of the key parcels have been acquired, but still more must be purchased and protected. He named Glassford Hill as the next key area, and a plan for that is in place with a recent intergovernmental agreement (IGA) among the City of Prescott, the Town of Prescott Valley and Yavapai County. “Besides Glassford Hill, other parcels are desirable to include in the regional park. At some point there will be agreement about when to start using the name Granite Dells Regional Park and Preserve. The idea is to connect lands and expand the park area,” he said.

Rusing says the intent is that the park will become a centerpiece for the region, a crown jewel offering locals and visitors access to a unique and (mostly) natural range of terrain and features, connecting with more developed trails. “There are significant health, economic, recreational, environmental, and ecological benefits,” he promises.

Trail development and plans for the land will follow the philosophy and style that’s been used in other area parcels, which Rusing described as a “light touch on the land.”

Many elements of the park are already open daily, including all the natural open space around the Watson and Willow reservoirs and their recreational amenities. While there is no agreed timeline for their expansion into a larger preserve, recent purchases have grown the nascent park substantially.

Rusing says that the core of the regional-park vision is the protection of the 473.7 acres in the Dells set aside in the Arizona Eco Development plan, which the City is still negotiating with the developer. Save the Dells, as a political action committee, played a significant role in electing members of Council who support the initiative.

At this point the primary planning and negotiations are in the hands of Parks and Recreation Manager Joe Baynes. Yavapai County and Prescott Valley are working with Prescott on the IGA to acquire and protect Glassford Hill from development and make it a key component of the regional preserve. Rusing credits Baynes as the key player in keeping the plan moving forward.

Details about management of the park are still open, within a consensus that it be managed locally rather than at the state level.

So far no one has come out in opposition to the park plan. Glassford Hill is on state trust land, so it will have to go through a bidding process, and it is possible that developer interests will oppose taking it off the market.

Several options remain for future acquisitions as described in the IGA, including other governmental funds at the state and possibly federal levels. Several parcels currently in private hands are desirable for purchase for the regional park, but the organizations agree that no one will be forced to sell.

The boundaries of the planned park encompass the lush riparian area known as No Name Creek. Anderson says it would be great to protect this area and name it after Elizabeth Ruffner, who was well known for her work to protect Prescott. “This is one of the most important watersheds. A lot would be impinged upon if it was developed. This is far more important than the rocks.”

Anderson says Save the Dells would like the regional park to be as large as the community can make it, including some integrated private land, as has often been done in the UK. Many local residents imagined that the Dells were fully protected before the developer came in and the controversy began, when there was only a right of way, so it will be important to make everyone aware of the regional park proposal.

Several groups have come forward with a range of concerns about the proposed road through the area known as Sundog Connector, including negative impact on the regional park in cutting the road and degradation of Glassford Hill. All City parklands must have conservation easements in place to permanently protect the land.

A long process

Anderson, who has written extensively about the regional park, says the concept has a long history. After the successful citizens initiative in 2000 establishing a 1% sales tax for 15 years to fund open space and transportation, the mayor established the Open Space Acquisition Advisory Committee. These experienced volunteers developed a systematic approach for evaluating potential properties for acquisition as open space. Rather than merely responding to periodic opportunities where willing sellers offer land for sale, the City turned to this advisory group for evaluation of potential purchases that could be prioritized and better justified.

It soon became clear that the Granite Dells offered the most spectacular landscapes and greatest opportunities for an interconnected group of properties that could come together as a regional park and preserve. The concept gained considerable traction and was included in the Council-approved Open Space Master Plan of 2008.

Anderson says that eventually it became obvious that political pressure would be essential to get the city to act on behalf of a park, so a small, dedicated group of individuals formed Save the Dells as a political action committee to that end.

More to come

Watson and Willow Lakes are already under City ownership and management, and there have been recent successes in protecting lands east of Highway 89, but there are existing and potential open-space pieces west of the highway toward Willow Lake, and they could eventually link up to carry the regional park and preserve idea as far as Pioneer Park, connecting with the wildlife corridor to the west and beyond. They foresee a day when there are popular trails connecting both reservoirs and their surrounding lands.

“The beauty of an interconnected series of open-space properties is that it provides unparalleled recreation opportunities while retaining ecological integrity for the diverse animals and plants that occupy these habitats. It will provide vital protection for an important watershed and serve as a model of enlightened land management that will put our communities and county on the map. It will allow wonderful education and interpretation opportunities, and will enhance property values throughout the area. The value of open space has been proven to enhance quality of life and to bring in tourist dollars far beyond the initial investment,” Anderson wrote.

The past year has seen several important victories making it clear that a Granite Dells Regional Park and Preserve is not only a good idea, but entirely feasible. As a nonpartisan watchdog group Save the Dells can help focus public concerns into political action. The nonprofit Granite Dells Preservation Foundation raises money to help the city achieve its goals with respect to the Dells. Both organizations gratefully accept citizen support, and encourage area residents to get behind the three cooperating governments to reinforce their moves to develop this protected-lands system.

Rusing says that many think the work of Save the Dells was done with the conclusion of the deal to preserve the Dells acreage, but that is not the case.

“We are alive and well, with a lot of work to do,” he says. “This has been the Save the Dells vision from the beginning.” Protecting the water, providing for quality of life and achieving regional cooperation remain among the organization’s core goals.

Stan Bindell is a freelance journalist and outdoor enthusiast.

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