Bridge Will Stay Open

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The state legislature, meeting in special session, approved a bill late Thursday afternoon that will apparently allow the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park to remain open.

The bill mandates the reallocation of part of the $3.4 million state parks enhancement fund to provide the money necessary to reopen seven parks already closed and to forego the closure of four others, including the bridge.

While state parks officials did not return calls, Rep. Jake Flake said, "It gives them no option but to keep the parks open. They've had to start working with us a little bit. They're not happy campers, that's for sure."

Gina Kash, a Flake aide, said the bill also places restrictions on the parks board.

"In this bill, they've really pulled in the reins on how things will be run in the future," Kash said.

Senate Bill 1007 transfers $450,000 from the acquisition and development portion of the enhancement fund to the operating account "for all the state parks to remain open for at least the same operating hours" as last year. It also requires the state parks board to submit quarterly expenditure reports on its operations at each state park, to consider allowing the privatization of one or more parks, and to curtail all out-of-state travel by the board for the 2002-2003 fiscal year.

The house passed an identical version of the bill sponsored by Flake.

Bob Ware, executive director of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the bill provides a solution everyone can live with, and that the parks board's silence is probably a good thing.

"The very important factor is that everybody gets to walk away, the governor included, and nobody has egg on their face," he said. "Everybody's happy (because) they can all say we worked together to find a solution. I think the parks board is doing the right thing by cooling their jets a little bit and just accepting what is going to happen. Why make a lot of comments when all you can do is screw it up."

The parks board had favored a solution that would allow it to use interest on the Growing Smarter fund to keep the parks open. Governor Jane Hull rejected the use of such funds for fear it would trigger lawsuits and similar requests from other agencies and departments.

Flake, who admitted an accounting error cut the parks budget by a greater amount than the legislature intended, said it took a genuine team effort to get the bill through the legislature.

"We worked hard on that, (and we) got a lot of cooperation," he said. "The governor's office helped us good, and we pushed that bill through."

The decision by the parks board to close the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and the other 10 parks "indefinitely" was made during a meeting in the Valley June 20 despite the protests of a large contingent of Rim country leaders.

Seven state parks in the southern part of the state Tubac Presidio, Catalina, Lost Dutchman, McFarland, Oracle, Picacho Peak, and Roper Lake closed July 8. In addition to the bridge, Fool Hollow Lake and Homolovi Ruins were scheduled to close Nov. 1, and Lyman State Park in the White Mountains was slated to close its gates Sept. 3.

The closures were in response to a 16 percent or $1.3 million cut in the Parks Department budget by the state legislature, part of the cuts made by the state to balance the budget in light of revenue shortfalls caused by the national recession.

Rim country residents packed a meeting of the state parks board held at the bridge July 18, and flooded the governor, legislators and parks officials with phone calls, e-mails and letters urging them to find a way to keep the bridge open.

"A month ago, I never thought we'd get to this point," Ware said. "I'm really pleased with all the people ... who worked so hard to make it happen literally the thousands who signed petitions and wrote letters and came out in support of the bridge."

Tonto Natural Bridge Manager John Boeck was also appreciative.

"The community was the big difference," Boeck said. "It was what we needed."

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