A fence intended to keep San Tan Mountains Regional Park clean and safe is dividing longtime allies who once worked together to preserve the park's desert landscape.
In March, Maricopa County parks and recreation workers finished installing the barbed wire fence along the park's north side and are now working their way west. Those used to entering from the north must use an entrance miles away on the east side near Phillips Road.
Since January, Maricopa County Regional Park Superintendent Bob Ingram and his small staff have been putting up fence around the park. He said the fence is necessary to help stop vandalism, thievery, shooting, dumping and other illegal activities.
"I don't like the fence — it's ugly and I have to maintain it," Ingram said.
Pinal County residents to the north don't like fences either, but unlike Ingram, they don't think restricting visitors to one main entrance will solve the problems. Much of the nearly 12 miles of fence has been cut by angry parkgoers who wish to enter and exit wherever they please.
"When Maricopa (County) puts the squeeze on the public, then people get very defiant," said Bernadette Heath, a scenic photographer and member of the preservation group San Tan Pride.
Heath said the fence is particularly offensive to people like her who have considered themselves stewards of the park. They feel as though their help is no longer wanted. She added that many volunteers used to enter the park from their back yards to pick up trash, maintain trails and run off troublemakers, but now they have been cut off, too.
However, Ingram said the fence is meant to save the environment from rampant vandalism, illegal dumping and motorized vehicles that tear up the terrain. He added that it also would solve safety problems such as hikers getting lost after wandering into the spiderweb of access trails that lead to the park's many improvised private entrances.
"This kind of an issue is dividing people who have always worked together," said Gordon Brown, another San Tan fan who is a member of the park's Stakeholders Advisory Committee. Brown said many of his constituents don't understand why the fence is needed. He said he believes groups for and against the single main entrance should share their ideas and find a compromise.
Ingram said he understands the arguments against the main entrance, but he said without a bigger budget for more employees the increasingly popular park isn't manageable unless it has controlled entry and exit.
In addition, the single entrance would allow the park to charge visitors. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote soon on a $5-per-vehicle use fee to cover the park's financial needs, rather than relying on often transitory county general fund dollars.
"If it's between jails or parks, it always goes to jails," Ingram said, "because everyone wants jails."