‘Mr. Verde River’ -- John Parsons is keynote speaker for 30th annual Verde River Day
The man credited with being the driving force for the Verde Valley’s best-known environmental festival will be the keynote speaker for the 2019 30th annual Verde River Day.
Verde River Day is scheduled Sept. 28, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood.
Best known in the Verde Valley as “Mr. Verde River,” John Parsons will assume the role held previously over the years by former Gov. Bruce Babbitt and former U.S. Senators John McCain and Barry Goldwater as the keynote speaker for Verde River Day.
This marks the second time in the past year that Parsons has been singled out for his decades of work on environmental issues in the Verde Valley. In April, the Town of Camp Verde named a new 30-acre nature preserve Parsons Park.
This time, Parsons will be the keynote speaker at the event for which he was one of the core members that established Verde River Day in 1989.
Getting Verde River Day off the ground
“For me, John Parsons was the impetus who started the event,” said former Verde Independent Publisher Dick Larson.
Along with Parsons, Larson was joined by former Dead Horse Park Manager Jon Clow, former Cottonwood Parks and Recreation Director Rick Champion and former Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce Director Pete Sesow as the founders of the inaugural Verde River Day in 1989.
Larson is quick to emphasize, however, that Parsons deserves the lion’s share of credit for getting Verde River Day off the ground.
“He was the ultimate Verde River proselytizer,” Larson said of Parsons. “He got me on the water in his canoe and gave me an education about the importance of the river to the Verde Valley … He got me on board by showing me that this natural wonder of the Verde Valley was pivotal to the appeal, the prosperity, the beauty and the quality of life enjoyed in the Valley. It needed to be preserved and respected.”
Transforming ‘The Dirty Verde’
For Parsons, the seed that sprouted into Verde River Day was planted as early as 1981. He describes that period as the “baby steps” era of creating public awareness over the inherent dangers of unregulated sand and gravel mining on the Verde River.
“I became super serious about the whole thing in 1983-1984,” said Parsons.
This was an era, Parsons remembers, when the river’s primary moniker was “The Dirty Verde.”
“Dumping … old car bodies into the river was still viewed as viable erosion control for so-called bank stabilization,” Parsons recalls. “Cattle roamed at will in the river channel, destroying young riparian seedlings before they could ever get a chance to grow.”
The worst problem, though, was an unregulated sand-and-gravel industry that mined material directly from the river bed. Over time, there became a growing awareness that materials mining was changing the natural course of the river. It made the river more susceptible to bank destruction during flood cycles. It rendered the river as nothing more than a silt-infested drainage ditch.
Education from the seat of a canoe
Parsons created a growing awareness of the problem by taking anyone and everyone he could convince to join him on a canoe trip down the river. He followed that up with various runs for public office at the county and state level. Parsons was not a politician who was in it so much to win as he was in making the political contacts necessary to effect change in river management policies.
Ironically, in what Parsons calls a “superb stroke of historical irony,” an Environmental Protection Agency cease and desist order that forever banned sand and gravel operations on the Verde River was dated Sept. 30, 1989.
That just happened to also be the same day as the very first Verde River Day.
Collective community effort
Parsons shies away from recognition as being the man responsible for the establishment of Verde River Day. It was, in his words, the collective efforts of several people and, ultimately, a community that believed the Verde River was a treasure instead of a resource.
One of the most important was longtime Verde Natural Resource Conservation District member Charles Van Gorder. He sold the Verde NRCD membership on establishing a river awareness/education community event.
Van Gorder’s participation, said Parsons, gave the project legitimacy. Others quick to join the effort were Cottonwood Parks and Recreation Director Rick Champion and Dead Horse State Park Manager Jon Clow.
Former Verde Independent Publisher Dick Larson was another of the founding members for Verde River Day.
“Without Dick’s enthusiasm, VRD would have never happened. Dick’s charisma brought a lot of other people onboard and, POOF, suddenly it was a community thing,” said Parsons. Larson also was the one who came up with name Verde River Day for the event.
“Looking back,” said Parsons, “it seems magical to me that all of this took place over 30 years ago. It’s really kind of hard for me to believe that so many people stepped forward to eagerly, willingly and happily to work on a ‘day’ for the river.”
Equally rewarding to Parsons is the fact that Verde River Day did not have an infancy and maturing period before it gained a local and statewide loyal following.
“Although no one realized it at the time in 1989, Verde River Day was an instant institution,” said Parsons.
“Verde River Day has thrived for 30 years primarily because people have a need to know more about the river and some folks specifically want to show that they care about the river. The event was not a passing fad. Enthusiasm for Verde River Day did not wane. In fact, a credible case could be made that interest solidified and increased through three decades. The collaboration, continuity and collective community efforts necessary to carry Verde River Day forward have been sustained, encouraged and rewarded because of the recurrent annual public support for the event and the underlying purpose. The 30-year legacy of Verde River Day is a rock-solid testimony that the people who live in and visit the Verde Valley care about the river and are willing to underscore and demonstrate that care with their attendance at and support for Verde River Day.”