Sunday, September 8, 2013

Verde River Day

The 25th Verde River Day is coming up September 28th.  Twenty five Verde River Days.  What an amazing run to remember!

I started Verde River Day and I'd like to tell you how it happened.  I've never told this story before but the 25th Verde River Day somehow makes me want to write it all down while it's fresh in my mind, so to speak.

DISCLAIMER: First, let's make on thing crystal clear--there are others who have always laid claim to "starting Verde River Day" and that's the way we've always wanted it.  That's the way we hope it continues to be.  We aren't telling this story to deflect the spotlight on those awesome and deserving people and organizations.  We're telling this story simply because we want to.  We're damned proud of what we did to create Verde River Day!  Second, we are NOT telling this story because we want any credit.  We didn't want credit back then and we don't care about credit today.  Did we say "We're telling this story simply because we want to?"

To tell the full story properly would take at least a small e-book.  We've learned oh-so-well that nobody reads long stories any more.  Generally, if you can't sum it up in a Tweet or a Facebook post, nobody reads it.  Hopefully, we can tell the gist of the story before you fall asleep for the evening.  Obviously, it's going to be a long story so now's your chance to bail out.

Here's the Cliff Notes version for those who are bailing out:

We founded the Northern Arizona Paddlers Club (NAZPAC) in March 1981 to create and broaden  groups of friends for both the Verde and the Salt Rivers.  We got into politics.  We began to fight sand & gravel in 1984.  We ran in two elections to build awareness about The Verde.  We knew we needed a "defining event" to showcase The Verde.  We started working to create such an event in 1987. We found an "in" with the Verde NRCD and used both elections and the NRCD to leverage our way toward a "defining event."  We worked full time behind the scenes for at least 2 years to get some mainstream momentum into such a "defining event."  Luckily, by early 1989, we had traction and other individuals and entities took over and achieved critical mass and Verde River Day was named and became the quintessential "defining event" for the river.  In reality it took years and a lot of hard work to coax and cajole a "defining event" into reality.

OK, that's the short of it.  Bye, bye to everyone who is bailing out!  We know how annoying these so-called "long reads" can be.  Thanks for reading thus far.

OK, now for the few of you who might still be here, let us proceed, shall we?

Once NAZPAC was up and running and had a robust membership and was a force to be reckoned with in the World of Paddling, the challenges began to wash ashore. From 1981 to 1984, the club's focus had been on lobbying for Wild & Scenic designation for critical portions of The Verde.  Many people and organizations joined in that effort and a big chunk of the river was finally declared Wild & Scenic in 1984.  Almost immediately, the focus shifted to streambed ownership and the rights of recreationists to paddle across private property as long as they were on the surface of the water.  Not coincidentally, the streambed ownership issue also involved the most egregious abuse of the Verde River in its entire history--sand & gravel mining in the middle of the live channel of the river.  This flagrant violation of the Clean Water Act was basically a declaration of war between the Paddling Community and the Sand & Gravel Miners and their misinformed, belligerent supporters.

We went to war against both those who staunchly opposed our rights to paddle across private property at the same time we took on the river rapers.  Our first move was to run as an independent for State Representative in 1986.  We had only ONE issue--preserve the rights to paddle across private property on the surface of a river or stream.  We strapped a red canoe to the top of our 1978 ex-Forest Service crew cab pickup and campaigned all across the sprawling district.  Our message was simple--"A Vote for Parsons is a Vote to Preserve Paddling Access Across Private Property."

We told people that their vote would indeed count because this was a "Stand UP and BE Counted" exercise.  I promised that I would take how ever many votes I received and register as a lobbyist and then bring my votes to the table in the discussion.  I promised I would make a difference in the issue but I needed their votes.  I pleaded for their votes.  I will never forget attending candidate forums in my old beat-up truck with the equally beat up canoe on top.  I would lean forward from those podium and give a Cross of Gold Speech about how this was a historical juncture in Arizona's recreational history and this was YOUR TIME to make a difference and YOUR TIME to stand up and say, "We're not going to take it any more!"

Well, by Gosh, whatever I said made a difference and I received almost 2,000 votes in that election.  At first I didn't think 1900-something votes was very impressive but then I began to hear from "Old Pols" that I had done really good and everybody was really impressed.

I took my votes down to the State Capitol and registered as an official lobbyist and when I started making the rounds, people already knew my name and what I had done and THEY congratulated ME before I could barely even say my name.  It was a very humbling experience.  Doors opened for me that could never have possibly even been available had not I stuck my neck out so far in that 1986 election.

I will filled with excessive passion in those days and worked really hard in the trenches down there at the Capitol.  I learned how to lobby "the right way" from some of the State's Biggest Pros.  Somehow, I knew instinctively how to create a collaborative partnership between people who might not normally even speak to each other.  Together we were an irresistible force and we successfully got a law enacted that specifically protected the rights of recreationists to paddle across private property on the surface of the water.  I will never forget being there for the final vote  I cried.  When it was done in early 1987, two of the Legislators brought me down to the floor and I got hugs and handshakes and high fives from them and many of the others on both sides of the aisle.  It was one of the most emotional experiences in my life up to that point.

As a result of a long backstory that can't be told here, I had an "in" with The Mecham Administration and I was able to actually attend the ceremony when Evan signed the bill into law.  He even gave me the pen he used to sign the bill.  While I was chatting with The Governor there far up in the high rise at the State Capitol, I flatly told him I wanted to be appointed to The Arizona Outdoor Recreational Coordinating Commission. (AORCC).  Whatever people say about Ev, he was a pragmatist and also a damned good car salesman.  He recognized a winning sales pitch when he saw one and so he said, "You see my Chief of Staff about it and let's see what we can do."

Thus began the next quest--the riddance of the pestilence of sand & gravel from the river and the creation of a "defining event" on behalf of the river.  The two were to go hand-in-hand for more than the next two years.

Due to another long backstory that can't be told here, I was successful in getting the Governor's appointment to AORCC.  Being a member of AORCC opened up a cornucopia of opportunities for me.  I was able to leverage my position as a Mecham Appointee in a wide-ranging and creative spectrum of ways.  By that time, I had long recognized that creating public access to The Verde River was a keystone issue in the future of the river.  At the time I took my seat on AORCC, all boats including canoes & kayaks were required to be registered on a fee scale that was by the foot.  That meant a 16-foot canoe paid the same registration fee as a 16-foot motor boat.  Meanwhile, not a single DIME had even been allocated from The State Lake Improvement Fund on behalf of river access.

So, my first priority was to get that changed ASAP.  Altogether, I freed up and got allocated over $1-million to develop what are now considered the keystone public access points along The Verde River from Cottonwood to Camp Verde.  If not for Brian Mickelsen, Bob Barker, Tom Bonomo and Wes Girard, few, if any, of those places might exist today.  Each of those Men stepped up to the challenge.  They all saw the future and they understood what a truly historic opportunity they had in the ultimate conservation and preservation of The Verde River.  They all four chose to "Stand & Deliver!"  I will never forget and I will always cherish the personal risk each of those four men took on behalf of the river.  They each are the living definition of Courage in their respective roles for the Verde in those early days.

Since AORCC was administered by Arizona State Parks, this gave me a natural "in" to Dead Horse Ranch State Park.  To coincide with the thrust to create RAPs (River Access Points) up and down The Verde, we began a citizen-led "Meet Your Verde" effort.  This started actually on a small basis in 1983 but became larger each year.  Once I became an AORCC Commissioner in April, 1987, the effort really took off.

We were able to get all sorts of Legislators and Federal and State Agency Staff actually in a canoe on the river to see for themselves what was going on.  We had several irons in the fire simultaneously during that time period.  All activities had a common goal--Building an Active, Involved, Caring Stakeholder Base for The Verde River.

Meanwhile The War On Sand & Gravel continued unabated and in full force, gaining momentum on several fronts. As this War continued, I received several genuine death threats from employees of the various companies involved in raping The Verde River.  Once my vehicle was broken into and ransacked and all my papers stolen.  I often lived in fear of my life during those days and I definitely "watched my back!"

One of my own personal "defining events" was when The Love of My Life asked me to help get Sand & Gravel out of her backyard on The Verde River.  The bonds we forged working together then bind Our Hearts Forever Together!  I Love You, Sweetie Susun MuCulla.  Thank You for your care for The Verde River!

I don't remember precisely when the topic of a "defining event" came into the discussion.  I am pretty sure it was on a canoe trip when people were standing alongside the river having lunch.  There was always a persistent concern on the part of elected, appointed and agency officials as to whether the community-at-large cared about their river.  It was one thing for a few passionate people to argue their case but we heard often that "community involvement" was the key.  The gist of everyone's comments was that if the community didn't care about issues involving the river then why should the agencies and elected officials care?

We all knew, of course, that they were right.  If the community didn't care then those officials could rightfully turn their backs and walk away.  I am guessing that the conversation about a "defining event" for The Verde River was probably first discussed in 1986.  I would be certain that it was discussed in the spring of 1987 and absolutely know is was a common topic of conversation during those critical days of 1988 when the future of The Verde truly hung in the balance.

That's why I decided to run for United States Congress as an Independent Candidate under the "Land, Water and Legacy" platform.  Bob Stump was the Republican opponent and wild card Dave Moss was the Democrat on the ballot.  My goal in running in that election was solely to leverage my gains to date, increase my "name ID" and build a better base with which to bring the battle to the doorstep of the river rapers.

By that time in my life, stopping the Sand & Gravel Miners was my top Life Priority.  Nothing else mattered to me.  I had only one focus and everything else was secondary.  As I look back on my life, I realize those days were truly my own personal "defining event."  I didn't know it at the time.  To me, everything was all about the battle field conditions of the day and who was doing what to whom and how could I get reinforcements onto the battle field to stem and finally turn the tide. Now I see it a different light, somewhat softer but no less intense.

I always carried a locked and loaded pistol 24/7 back in those days.  It was a five-shot Smith & Wesson Model 37 Airweight in .38 caliber.  I wasn't being paranoid.  People told me they were out to get me and they said they were going to kill me.  I really felt like I didn't care.  If that's what it was going to come down to then, By God, I was ready to go hand-to-hand and die for the cause.

But I knew I was going to WIN and that was my whole mentality.  I projected that mentality to everyone I worked with, Friend and FOE.  I honestly believe that my enemies knew I was willing to Stand & Deliver and I honestly believe that's what kept me alive in those days.  They knew I wouldn't be going down without an Old Time Arizona gunfight so they'd have to back shoot me to get me.  This is kind of a back-handed compliment to those Good Ol' Boyz back then but, honest, none of them were Don Bolles Bomber Back Shooters.  They were all the type of True Blue Old School John Wayne Guys who'd had to take you down face-to-face.  I honestly learned to appreciate that about them and I will always believe that they learned to respect and appreciate me for the same reason.  As strange as those days were, I knew on some primal level I was fighting with honorable people.  But I certainly NEVER stopped watching my back---just in case!

My running for US Congress in 1988 was really a turning point in the whole paradigm.  Even though I had no chance of winning (DUH!), I received a LOT of votes across an impossibly wide area stretching from Sun City practically to Utah and from The Colorado River well into the Eastern Mogollon Rim Country.

I will never forgot one candidate forum in Sun City during that election.  I set up this really cool information table with a Navajo Rug on top of the table and all these cool books by Ed Abbey and that genre. There were well over 500 people in the Sundome or whatever it was.  It was cavernous.  That day happened to be pristine air.  I stood up and told all those Old Farts that THEY were the ones responsible for all the Bad Air in the Phoenix Valley.  I told 'em if it wasn't for them we'd have clear air EVERY DAY! Well, DUH, I did well everywhere else in the district but I think I got perhaps 20 votes down there in Sun City.  Hell, I didn't care. I didn't care then and I still don't care now! Speaking the Truth can set you free!  When you're running as an Independent, you can say whatever you want.

Well, after the election, things seriously changed for the better.  A WHOLE lot more people were paying attention and a WHOLE lot more Elected, Appointed and Staffed people were "onboard."  Man, the train was leaving the station.  We had NO problem getting the EPA Regional Director to come and sit in a canoe and look face-to-face at the rape and pillage of the Verde River by the sand and gravel miner. At the end of taht canoe trip he looked me eye-eye and said, "John, I promise you these people will be out of this river!"


All the Old School obstructionists were suddenly on the defensive.  Even the Staid Old US Army Corps of Engineers had to stand up and take notice:  "That Guy Parsons isn't going down without a fight.  He might just take that hill."

Luckily, by that time, we had a Legion of Friends of The Verde stepping forward to paddle canoes, move rocks, open channels, run shuttles or do whatever needed to be done.  Thanks so much to Marsha, Bob, Joe, Jeff, Phyllis, and so many otheres whose names I wish I could remember.  YOU helped WIN our War!

We worked our way up through the political food chain until we got US Senator Dennis DeConcini in one of our canoes.  We actually took the Senator out at Brian Mickelsen's house on the Verde River!  If ever there was a defining moment in Our War, it was on that day.

In the meantime, we worked the media hard, too.  We finally scratched and clawed out way into a lunch with Dick Larson, Publisher of The Verde Independent.  We leaned across the lunch table and said, "Dick, people could read your newspaper for a year and NEVER know a river runs through this community!"  Then we challenged him to take a canoe trip with us.  He did and the rest, as they say, is history.

But more on that later.

Meanwhile, throughout all these skirmishes, the topic of conversation always came back to the one sticking point: Is There Community Support?  Do Local People Care About This River?  If so, prove it.

It was the final hurdle.  It was a bar set so high.  HOW in the world were we ever going to clear that hurdle and prove that point.  We so desperately needed a "defining event" for The Verde River.  But How?  Where? With Whom?  In what context?  YIKES.  I laid awake at night wondering what I could do to make this happen.  It was truly clear if there was no way for the community to show their support for the river, I would lose the Sand and Gravel War.

Back when I grew up in Indiana, I gained a high regard for Soil Conservation Districts.  The men who served on those venerable districts back there in The Corn Belt were Scions of their time.  I lived in awe of them.  When I learned there was such a a thing as The Verde Natural Resource Conservation District (NRCD), well, I felt perhaps I might have an ally in my War.

I will never forget the first meeting I attended in 1988.  Charles Van Gorder was alive and well and still serving as a Board Member.  Charles is easily the most unsung Hero of The Verde River but it's a story too long to tell here.  Anyway, I got up in front of the Board and made a speech and I talked about all we had done and The War and how I needed community support and how I needed a "defining event" and how I needed allies and how the Board could make a difference all that Cross of Gold stuff.

I will never forget this moment as long as I live.  Old Charles sat motionless.  (He died soon afterwards.)  He barely raised his head and he said, "John, you need a Day for The River.  Give People a Day for The River."  There was silence in the room.  I was standing.  Everyone else was sitting.  The pause continued.

Finally, the NRCD Board Chairman said, "This wasn't on our agenda but how many of you here on this Board would support a "Day for The River."  All hands rose.  Charles lifted his head and smiled.

And thus what became Verde River Day was born.

I took the concept of "a Day for The River" with the tacit support of the NRCD and immediately tied it into involve the Chamber, The City, The newspaper, the Rotary, and the entire "who,what,why,where,when and how" of The Upper Verde for a "day for the river."

Well, that's where Pete Sesow and Dick Larson got their heads together and saw the promotional possibilities for The Upper Valley and, boy, did they take the ball and run to into the end zone.  Rick Champion was Cottonwood Parks & Recreation Director back then and Rick was a great lineman for the quarterback Sesow and his best receiver Larson.  The Staff of Dead Horse State Park filled all the rest of the lineman positions and Max Castillo played Right Tackle, protecting the quarterback and kicking anatomy and taking names.

Soon, it all began to coalesce.  People assumed their natural leadership roles and I faded into the background to make sure all the wires kept connected and no fuses blew.  It was so awesome.  We began having monthly meetings and then went to even more frequent meetings and all the players were like little kids bringing their latest "show and tell" contributions to each meeting.  I will never forget when Pete scored a Governor's Proclamation forever declaring the last Saturday in September to be Verde River Day.

As the momentum built and rolled toward destiny, I became worried if it really truly would happen.  Everyone assured me, "It's going to happen, John."

Meanwhile, I had parlayed the regular meetings of "The Verde River Day Steering Committe" off to the EPA and the Congressionals and all of the rest.  I said,  "Hey, THIS proves there is Community Support for this river.  You can't deny it.  The community is coming together to SHOW their support on September 30th."

I kept it up and up and up.  "Hey, THIS is the "defining event".  This is the show of Community Support.  TAKE IT TO THE END ZONE.  CRUSH SAND AND GRAVEL!  PUSH 'EM BACK, PUSH 'EM WAY BACK!"

And so it was on September 30th, 1989, that the first Verde River Day was born.  And so it was on September 30th that the EPA Region 9 Director signed a Cease & Desist Order forever ending the river raping sand and gravel operations.  And so it was on September 30th, 1989, that a New Era was born on The Verde River.

The birth of Verde River Day will arguably Live Forever as perhaps the greatest single Shining Moment in The History of The Verde River.  For on that One Day, The Community Stepped forward and said unequivocally and without any shadow of any doubt, "WE LOVE THE VERDE RIVER!"

GOD BLESS VERDE RIVER DAY AND LONG MAY YOU LIVE!  Thank You to each and every Human Being who has made this incredible event possible for 25 years.  I am humbled and privileged to have worked with you.  GOD BLESS YOU and Thank You for saving a Glorious Desert River!

Sincerely, John Parsons


Mayor Diane Joens said...

What a beautiful story, and a version that I had not yet heard until today. I remember 1986, the year we moved here. I may have been more aware of your campaigns for office, but I was dealing with the death of my only surviving child and just trying to navigate my way in my new community. I was in survival mode, as you were, but for different reasons at the time. I didn't meet you until I went to work for Chip, and you were working for NRCD and leading raft rides then. That was about 1997-98 so you'd been in the "Verde River business" quite some time by then. Thanks for all you have done, John. I think you should write the book, along with all the back stories.

Wayne Ranney said...

This has got to be one of the most interesting and most important stories EVER TOLD in the Verde Valley! Thank you John for being the champion of this river and corralling the powers that be into making this happen. I agree with Diane - the back stories are important too but we'll save that for an Oral History one day soon. Thank you, thank, thank you JP!

Ring3141 said...

You have many layers, my friend and they are still being unveiled to me after all these years!
You can be proud of what you have accomplished for the
Verde Valley. Some day they should put up a plaque or a monument to you. Perhaps a sculpture showing you coming out of a wave at Chrystal Rapid.

Dave Ehmke (Siegfried)