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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

home : features : people, places & past June 30, 2016

12/13/2011 1:05:00 PM
When the River Spoke
John Parsons and the ‘Dirty Verde’
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Steve Ayers
Staff Reporter

RIMROCK - Claiming that John Parsons has had as much of an influence on the Verde River as any man since Gen. George Crook would be an extremely audacious statement -- were it not true

Showman, rebel, river runner and never-elected-but-hugely-influential politician, Parsons, more than anyone, is responsible for transforming the Verde from a gravel-pitted, land-filled, orphaned waif to the thing of charm and beauty it is today.

Before he arrived in the spring of 1981, it was known as the “Dirty Verde,” a name it wore like a tattered coat on a homeless man. And much like the homeless man, no one knew it existed.

Over a 20-year span he helped fix both problems.

An ardent canoe paddler, Parson came to Flagstaff in 1981 to run a real river -- the mighty Colorado. But he wasn’t long in realizing the mighty river had some mighty egos rafting its current.

So he formed the Northern Arizona Paddlers Club, an inclusive organization for those who simply wished to float rivers and encourage others to do so.

About the same time he also signed up for a college class taught by valley historian and Verde River shill Jim Byrkit.

Under Byrkit’s hypnotic influence, Parsons dumped the Colorado.

“I realized the Colorado River had a million friends and the Verde had none. Zero. I spontaneously got involved with the Verde,” Parsons says.

It was love at first sight. And he started telling anyone who would listen that the Verde was the place to be. It wasn’t long before the river runners showed up in droves.

Although a self-described “yahoo” at the time, with little care for anything but the next adrenaline-pumping rapid, he was observant not only of the debris that choked some reaches of the stream but also of the water’s constant turbidity.

“At high flow, when the snow melts, all rivers are turbid. But when a naturally flowing river reaches base flow it should be crystal clear. The Verde didn’t do that,” he says.

A naturally curious person, he went upstream to investigate. That’s when he discovered the sand and gravel companies, dredging the river, churning the sediments and generally operating as though the river were theirs.

“I asked myself, how could anyone think they can set up an industrial operation in the middle of a free flowing natural stream? It flies in the face of the Clean Water Act. I made it my goal to get them out,” he says.

As a lone yahoo crying out in the wilderness, Parsons spent much of the next few years trying vainly to drum up support and find a better solution.

He went to Albuquerque where he heard the same problem was taking place, only to find the sand and gravel companies had vacated the Rio Grande for better, cheaper-to-process gravels on the alluvial fans to the east.

“The light bulb went off. I’m not the kind of person who would want to ruins someone’s business, in spite of some things that have been said of me,” he says.

Parsons was still lacking a grasp how he was going to get it done when he was chosen to serve on a state grand jury in Phoenix. With hours spent waiting for lawyers, he began reading the Arizona Revised Statutes. By the time jury duty was over he had a handle on how state government operated.

He also discovered an otherwise obscure commission, operating under Arizona State Parks, called the Arizona Outdoor Recreation Coordinating Commission. One of its primary responsibilities was doling out money from the State Lake Improvement Fund.

The SLIF money came from boat registration. The only problem was the commission was using all the money it received, for projects that benefited powerboats.

At no time since its inception had it spent so much as a nickel on paddleboats, even though at the time the owner of a 16-foot canoe paid the same amount as the owner of a 16-foot speedboat.

Parsons’ only problem now was how to get to the money.

Taking some advice from a fellow paddler, he ran for the state Legislature, knowing perfectly well he would fail.

However, with his 1,913 votes in his pocket he went down to the capital, signed up as a lobbyist and successfully ushered a bill protecting the rights of paddlers to cross private lands on the surface of flowing streams.

Then he managed to wheedle his way into the signing of the bill, where he met then-Gov. Evan Mecham.

“I simple asked if he would appoint me to the commission,” Parsons says. “I figured I had nothing to lose.”

Several weeks later, after considerably more wheedling, he was appointed.

Using the power of the office and the funding he shamed the other commissioners into allocating for river access and other programs, he began bringing anyone and everyone to the Verde to see its charms as well as what the sand and gravel operators were up to.

One of the sand and gravel operators, Valley Concrete, had a particular disdain for what Parsons was doing.

Every time he brought a group on a river trip, which was quite often, the company’s operator would make a point of firing up their drag line, dredging up an enormous bucket of material and dumping it squarely in the path of the boaters.

On one occasion, one of the boaters was the head of the Region 9 office of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“With the blood draining from his face, the EPA guy turned to me and said, “I can’t believe what I just saw. It will only be a matter of time before I get the paperwork, John.”

On Sept. 30, 1989, the EPA signed and delivered a Cease and Desist Order to all sand and gravel companies operating in the river. It was also the same day a new celebration was launched at Dead Horse Ranch State Park -- Verde River Days.

A few years later, on a day when Arizona State Parks celebrated the donation of a substantial tract of riverfront property for the Verde River Greenway Project, the donator of that land, the same man whose dragline operator had offended so many, the owner of Valley Concrete, made a speech.

“I damn near cried,” Parsons says. “He wasn’t defiant. He wasn’t mad. He spoke straight from the heart. He said, ‘If I knew then what I know now, I don’t think we would have done the things we did, and it’s our pleasure to give this land to the state so it is preserved in perpetuity.”

As Parsons has always been fond of saying, the river had spoken.

“I always viewed myself as the middleman, helping people get introduced to the river so the river could speak to them and tell its story in its own way, in its own time, straight to their hearts,” he says.

“Once it does then that person has a personal relationship with the river that never goes away. It works. I have seen it happen so many times, and it’s really cool to see.”

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Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Article comment by: Showman, rebel, river runner ...

... guess that's about as good as any description for a guy that's pretty hard to describe.

Remember when JP ran for congress? Made up his own political party, something like the air, water, and land party. Ran a pretty good campaign too. We recall the radio spots spoken in Navajo.

JP crushed in the primary, but managed to carry a strong majority in one town ... Jerome. '-)

No matter. Good job JP, very proud of you.

Posted: Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Article comment by: Maggie Jenner

I have known John since those early days and am proud of what he accomplished. He is a true pioneer and deserves this acknowledgement. I am proud to have him for a friend for all these years m

Posted: Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Article comment by: Verde River Native

Where is this in the ARS: "successfully ushered a bill protecting the rights of paddlers to cross private lands on the surface of flowing streams"

The Verde River has been determined to be non-navigable, boaters do not have any right to cross private lands on the Verde River, even though they may do it under trespass.
Private property rights must be protected.

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