America celebrates its heritage this week as we honor our national parks.
National Park Week is an opportunity to get to know all 401 units of the National Park Service - parks, battlefields, natural areas and historic sites - but for those of us in Tucson, it's a chance to appreciate the national park in our own backyard. And Monday through Friday all park admissions are free.
The two districts of Saguaro National Park offer nearly 200 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails - presenting visitors of every ability with a variety of recreational experiences. The park's wide range of elevation supports extraordinary biodiversity within a relatively small geographic area, and the distinct Sonoran Desert /Sky Island eco-region has been described as "unique on the planet."
Not only does the park protect the iconic saguaro cacti, but it conserves some of the region's most distinctive wildlife. Sonoran desert tortoises, Gila monsters, mountain lions, bobcats and lesser long-nosed bats are all species that are essential to sustaining the overall health of this ecosystem - and they all help to define the unique "sense of place" that makes Tucson so appealing (described by the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau as "The Real Southwest").
We know that national parks are powerful economic engines for local communities. A recent Park Service economic-benefits study found that visitors to Saguaro National Park spent $21.9 million in the Tucson community - spending that supported 294 local jobs.
Statewide, the 22 national parks in Arizona welcomed 10.3 million visitors in 2011; and, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, those national parks are fundamental to the state's $10.6 billion outdoor-recreation economy and its 104,000 Arizona jobs.
Unfortunately, our national parks are economic assets at risk, as the national parks budget has been cut by 11 percent (or roughly $380 million) over the past three years. With the federal budget outlook grim, the need for local, private-sector support for our parks becomes absolutely critical. Nationally, more than 150 nonprofit Friends Groups (such as Friends of Saguaro) help connect communities to their national parks and catalyze private-sector investments.
Friends of Saguaro invests in science-based resource management to help protect the park's native biodiversity. We invest in place-based environmental education to help "reconnect youth with nature" (reaching nearly 13,000 Tucson-area students last year alone). And we provide investments - such as new interpretive exhibits at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center - that enhance the overall visitor experience at the park.
In the past three years, Friends of Saguaro has provided the park with more than $225,000 in direct project support, and each year more than 400 volunteers provide the park with more than 30,000 hours of service. But so much more needs to be done.
If you'd like to celebrate National Park Week by helping us invest in Saguaro National Park, just donate on our website at www.friendsofsaguaro.org. You can help other national parks through the National Park Foundation at www.nationalparks.org or the National Parks Conservation Association at www.npca.org.
Protecting our national parks - and preserving our collective heritage - is a responsibility we share as a society and a critical investment in our future.
Robert Newtson is executive director of Friends of Saguaro National Park. Contact the organization by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org