Last Chance For Tonto Bridge

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When the Arizona State Parks Board convenes at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park this week, Bob Ware wants them to get an earful from Rim country residents regarding their decision to close the bridge indefinitely Nov. 1.

"We need the presence of people who love the bridge, who realize it has an economic bearing on our community, who find it the wrong decision to close it...," the executive director of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce said. "The public needs to say, 'No, this is not good for us.'"

The meeting is scheduled to begin Wednesday at 1 p.m. and continue at 9 a.m. Thursday at the lodge. The only place on the agenda where public comment is allowed is at the beginning of the Thursday session, but Ware hopes the public will also be allowed to speak later in that session during the "director's report on discussions with local communities and potential partners regarding park closures."

Ware also recommends that locals attend the Wednesday afternoon session, even though public comment will not be allowed. While the topic of that meeting is the park's operating budgets for 2003, 2004 and 2005, "fees research" is part of the budget presentation.

Therein, Ware believes, lies an alternative to closing the bridge.

"All they have to do is double the fee," he said. "I mean, how simple is it? This is not a logical business decision. You don't 'save' by curtailing your product by closing and still keeping two staff people on board while it's closed. I can't believe McDonald's wouldn't raise their soda a nickel if it kept them in the soda business. The local movie theater just went up a dollar in the evening. Why? Because they needed more revenue."

The obvious conclusion, Ware believes, is that the decision to close the Tonto Natural Bridge and 10 other state parks is purely political.

"This is a pencil in someone's eye," he said. "It's kind of like they say in the country-western song, 'This is my story and I'm sticking to it.' I think they've made a bad row and now they have to hoe it."

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 protestations of a large contingent of Rim country leaders.

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.

In addition to the bridge, Fool Hollow Lake, Homolovi Ruins, would join the bridge in closing Nov. 1. Seven state parks Catalina, Lost Dutchman, McFarland, Oracle, Picacho Peak, Roper Lake and Tubac Presidio were closed indefinitely July 7.

Lyman State Park in the White Mountains would close Sept. 3, or sooner if the lake level drops to a certain point. Arizona has a total of 30 state parks.

Ware believes the parks board has been surprised by the outpouring of support for the bridge from area residents.

"They didn't expect this type of protest from somebody," he said. "Most communities (near other parks designated for closure) are pretty quiet about it. But there is just no logic to this whatsoever."

Following the June 20 meeting, Ware issued a request for locals to attend the meeting this week at the bridge.

"To revisit the closure decision, I am hoping that 500 merchants, local residents, political leaders, members of the Payson Packers and just mad-as-hell citizens attend the meeting," he said. "Each person should register to speak ... and everyone should come with fresh indignation and realistic suggestions on how to remove the Tonto Natural Bridge from the list."

Since the parks board decision, Ware has campaigned tirelessly against the closure wherever he could find an audience. Most recently he took the cause to radio stations around the state.

"I was on KTAR Saturday morning, on KFYI Friday, and (on stations) in Tucson Wednesday," he said. "I was also on the state news network. We need as much economic stimulus as possible during the cold weather months. This will not only reduce our traffic, it also refutes all the ads being run around the state and across the U.S. telling people to come to Arizona and see the bridge. Not one ad mentions that it will not be open for four months out of the year."

A total of 100,178 people visited the bridge in 2001, ranking it ninth in attendance among the state parks. The bridge generated $167,000 in revenue, 14th among the state's 30 parks.

Those planning to speak at the Thursday meeting must arrive by 9 a.m. and register at the door, Ellen Bilbrey, public information officer for the state parks, said. You will not be charged admission to the park if you tell officials you are there to attend the meeting.

Speakers will be limited to five minutes each.

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