Did You Know: Papago Park Was The First Decommissioned National Monument

February 07, 2014

(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)
A view from the Hole-in-the-Rock.

Talk about a game of political yo-yo. For more than a century a well-known park, right here in the Phoenix area, has been through a debate over how to best manage it. Papago Park spans three cities and has been through a back-and-forth over the years.

At Papago Park there are picnic areas, hiking trails, fishing ponds and piles of ancient rocks that hikers climb for an expansive city view, but behind the scenery is a long and somewhat complicated history. Did You Know Papago Park was once designated a national monument and then became the first to be decommissioned?

“Phoenix was growing in the late 19th century. This was viewed as a very popular place to come and relax on a Sunday afternoon," said George Hartz. 

Hartz has written books on Arizona parks. He said at the turn of the 20th century, locals feared this open space would be taken up by private homesteaders. At the time the state did not have the money to buy and preserve the 2,000 acres of empty land. So, Carl Hayden, a representative in Congress at that time, convinced President Woodrow Wilson to authorize the Papago-Saguaro National Monument.

“Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it (a) national monument on January 31, 1914, and it could no longer be developed or taken over by private individuals," said Hartz. 

Papago Park became the seventh national monument in Arizona, but more than a decade later Arizonans changed their mind. They wanted more control over how to use the land and wanted to build fish hatcheries and transform the monument into a recreational area. Now Sen. Carl Hayden got involved once more and convinced Congress to give it back to the state.  

"During the 1930s some real money and time was spent developing amenities in the park, building ramadas, building roads, building an amphitheater, improving picnic grounds. So the dream of having this as a real recreational facility was coming true," said Hartz. 

Yes, the fish hatcheries were built too. Hartz said they produced about 150,000 bass and perch each year, which were used to stock local rivers and lakes.

But then the state lost control of the land again. During WWII the military used Papago Park as a prisoner of war camp. Hartz said when it was finally returned to Arizona, the debate over how it should be managed started up again.

“Should there be commercial facilities in here, should there be restaurants? At one point, someone suggested building, it’s hard to believe, a 600 foot tall saguaro cactus that would have a restaurant on the top and it be sort of a symbol of Phoenix," Hartz explained. 

Clearly that suggestion did not work out. By the 1960s, the Phoenix Zoo was added to the park next to the already established Desert Botanical Garden. The fish hatcheries were reconfigured as smaller lagoons.

Oh and one more thing. Back when Sen. Hayden was trying to get Papago Park returned to the state, Arizona was making the case for the feds to declare South Mountain a national monument, but fearing another park debacle, Hartz said the government refused the offer.