By Casey Newton
Phoenix, AZ (January 4, 2010)- In their latest effort to solve Arizona’s budget crisis with cuts, lawmakers turned to a woman who couldn’t make a fuss. After all, she has been dead for eight years. Alta Forest, a Danish immigrant who fell in love with Arizona after moving to Fountain Hills with her husband, left nearly $250,000 to the Arizona State Parks Board when she died of cancer at age 82.
When parks officials received the money in 2003, it was the largest private donation the parks system had ever received. They were unprepared for such a large gift, said Ken Travous, who served as state-parks director for 23 years before retiring in June. “We had never received anything of that magnitude before,” he said, adding that he began “looking for something that was big enough to really make her proud.”
While parks officials considered what to do with the money, Arizona’s budget deficit ballooned into the billions. Last month, when the Republican-led Legislature met in special session to cut $140 million from the budget, it swept up half the money in the parks system’s donations fund, which included most of Forest’s donation. “It was like they had kicked me in the stomach,” Travous said. “Surely, I thought, they have some shame. But they’re shameless.”
Legally, a parks spokeswoman said, the Legislature can take any donations that have not been earmarked for a specific purpose, such as restoring trails or acquiring land. But donations like Forest’s, along with any money tossed into the donation coffers found throughout the parks system, can be reappropriated by lawmakers.
Forest’s friends said she would have been devastated to learn that her donation will not go to support the parks system, but instead to pay for operating expenses, such as building maintenance and electric bills. “She would have been totally nauseated,” said Roger Essenburg, a close friend and the executor of Forest’s estate. “She would have never have given the money if she had known the state was going to take it way from the parks board.”
Born in Aalborg, Denmark, in 1919, Forest immigrated to the United States in 1950 with her first husband, Will Timm, a German scientist who worked for NASA. She learned English out of a dictionary, memorizing 10 words a day, friends say.
Timm died in 1971, and four years later, she married engineer Edward Forest. They moved to Fountain Hills in 1990, where Alta Forest worked as a dental assistant and an office manager.
The Forests never were rich, friends say, but they were prudent with their money and saved carefully. Edward Forest died in 1993. In her last years, Alta Forest became involved in a variety of other causes. Friends say she called Arizona her “Garden of Eden.” “She just loved everything about Arizona – its beauty and all the natural scenery,” Essenburg said.
Reese Woodling, chairman of the state-parks board, said officials now are reconsidering the way they solicit donations. Woodling wants to make sure money donated to parks stays there, particularly given that budget cuts could close up to half the state’s parks in the next six months. “We’ll do whatever we can to keep those donations flowing in,” he said. “For our Legislature to take that money and not give it a second thought is unconscionable.”
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