Our next national park could be in southern AZ

Published: Jan. 28, 2016 at 4:44 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 24, 2016 at 4:17 PM MST
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Chiricahua National Monument could be designated as a national park, if supporters of the idea...
Chiricahua National Monument could be designated as a national park, if supporters of the idea get their wish. (Source: Tucson News Now)

COCHISE COUNTY, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Making America's next national park could be as simple as a name change, according to supporters of a plan to make a southern Arizona monument into a park.

Bob Gent, a longtime visitor to Chiricahua National Monument, began to rally support around the idea of making the area a part of the National Park Service. He said the simple fact of being the country's newest national park would be enough to attract new visitors.

"It is a very beautiful geologic wonder," he said. "It deserves national park status. I think it would be good for Arizona."

And it could be good for businesses in southern Arizona. Some consider Willcox to be the gateway to the Chiricahuas, and Roberta Serface at Flying Leap Vineyards said customers stop by for a bottle or two on their way to overnight excursions in the mountains.

Billboards on Interstate 10 already draw in travelers from the highway, but Serface said she imagines national park as a nearby destination will attract even more people to Willcox.

"It's one of those little specimens that are kind of secret and people are starting to discover us," she said.

Charmayne Samuelson, owner of Dos Cabezas Retreat B & B, has hosted thousands of guests visiting the Chiricahuas over the years.

Nestled south of Willcox and a short drive from the national monument, the bed and breakfast would likely have more bookings if people knew that it was so close to a national park, according to Samuelson.

"I really applaud the people that have become actively involved in this effort," she said. "It's a lot of work, a lot of commitment and a lot of energy. But sometimes these things can gather energy of their own, and a momentum."

That momentum has been building for Gent. He's already earned the approval of elected leaders in Benson, Sierra Vista and Cochise County. However, he needs the support of Congress to make it happen.

Gent said Arizona's newest national park is Saguaro, which was approved in 1994 despite hang-ups with land use, environmental protections and park staffing.

Chiricahua is already operated by the National Park Service, so Gent figures the only aspect that needs to change about the park and its management is the name. He's hopeful that Senators and Representatives will put party differences aside and consider the benefit of approving another national park.

"Democrat and Republican ... look at this and say it's really good for Arizona," he said. "It's good for New Mexico, it's good for the Park Service and we think this should be done."

Congresswoman Martha McSally agrees with Gent. She plans to introduce a bill in the next month to start the process in Washington.

"This is really a win-win," she said. "We're currently working with partners to get co-sponsors and working with the relevant committee ... to make sure it actually has a chance to move forward."

Whatever the future of the Chiricahuas might be, Alan Baker, Director of the Willcox Chamber of Commerce, said people living in southern Arizona should enjoy the national monument before more and more visitors roll in to marvel at its beauty.

"It really is a gem here that we have in southern Arizona that a lot of people just don't know about," he said. "They should come and see it and experience some of the other local culture."

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