While there's no denying the magnificence of America's national parks, "it's the stories behind the scenery that will blow you away," said Gayle Townsend, marketing director for the Western National Parks Association.
There may be no better source for those stories than Western National Parks' new 16,000 square-foot headquarters at 12880 N. Vistoso Village Drive in Oro Valley, where thousands of history and park-related items ranging from field guides, maps and posters to native crafts fill the shelves along with the numerous association publications. "Anyone interested in exploring Arizona and beyond, we have the materials to fill that need," Townsend said, adding that she hopes residents planning trips and visiting out-of-towners avail themselves of what the store has to offer to enrich their visits.
The association was formed in 1938 as a nonprofit publisher of books for and about national parks under the name Southwest Parks and Monuments Association. The goal was and continues to be providing site-specific information not available from any other source on parks many people may not have even heard about.
The association grew out of a need to find publishers willing to help promote tourism at these less visited parks.
Sixty-four years later, the association's focus on small parks remains, but its impact on the National Park Service has been huge.
Since its inception at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, the group has donated nearly $28 million to the National Park Service, including more than $2.4 million a year ago. A percentage of each store's revenue is returned by the association to the park in the form of interpretive support accounts to publish newspapers, trail guides and other materials ranging from videos to children's blocks and T-shirts to guides on the purchase of Indian pottery, jewelry and rugs.
The work is done by Indian artists at the El Morro National Monument in Ramah, N.M., the Tohono O'odham at Sells and the Navajo at the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site at Ganado, Ariz., where the association retains unusually direct contact with the artists because it runs the facility. The funds also support on-site educational and research programs, all geared to enrich the park visitor's stay.
Examples of the diversity of the association's educational efforts include the assistance last year to the Arikara, Crow, Cheyenne, Sioux and Northern Arapaho tribes in commemorating the 125th anniversary of the battle at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Wyoming.
At the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California, funds went toward buying kayaks for ranger-led tours at a time when the park was planning to ban motorized personal watercraft.
Financed by a grant from Western National Parks, University of Arizona researchers are working with biologists at Saguaro National Park's Rincon Mountain District to track the movement of tortoises to gain a broader understanding of their range and how urbanization in their natural habitat has affected them.
"Everything's geared toward learning," said Townsend, one of the 20 employees at the Oro Valley store.
Nationally, the association, which changed its name from Southwest Parks and Monuments to Western National Parks April 1 to reflect the diversity of the stores and geographic locations the group serves, has 120 full and part-time workers at 62 parks in 11 states. The total includes 15 sites in Arizona, 14 in New Mexico, nine in Texas and seven in California.
The association's new headquarters site combines administrative offices that had been housed in Tucson's El Presidio Historic District since 1983 with the new bookstore, distribution warehouse operations formerly housed in Globe and a training and lecture room that will seat 50. Over the next several months the association will be bringing in prominent authors to talk about their works. Among the planned speakers planned are bird expert Ken Kaufman, hiking advisor Betty Leavengood and Robert Olsen, an authority on Southwest cooking
Tim Priehs, Western National Parks chief executive officer, said the association began looking for a new site for the cramped Tucson facility in about 1995 and set its sights on state-owned land at North La Canada Drive and West Lambert Lane that was being sold at auction. The association missed out, however, when the property was purchased by Oro Valley for its West Lambert Lane Park. Town Manager Chuck Sweet learned of the association's interest in relocating to Oro Valley and worked to promote that move, Priehs said.
Racks and shelves seemed packed with materials during a recent visit, with seemingly little room to fit in any more posters, field guides, maps or native arts and crafts.
But looks can be deceiving, as the saying goes, for the fully-stocked appearance "is all being done with smoke and mirrors," said store manager Keith McHenry, a former park ranger with his own stories to tell. In fact, the store was only between 50 and 75 percent stocked, but within a few days every nook and cranny would be full of materials, he said. And it's not a static inventory, Townsend emphasized. "Anyone who comes in repeatedly will probably see a change on every visit," she said.