A recommendation by the Arizona State Parks Department to close the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park indefinitely Nov. 1 has local leaders outraged.
"I'm appalled," Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bob Ware said. "I really am. There's no logic to this."
Payson Mayor Ken Murphy called it "crazy" and "one more nail in rural Arizona's coffin."
The parks department also recommended that seven state parks in southern Arizona be closed indefinitely July 8. They are Catalina, Lost Dutchman, McFarland, Oracle, Picacho Peak, Roper Lake and Tubac Presidio.
Lyman State Park in the White Mountains would close Sept. 3, or sooner if the lake level drops to a certain point.
Two other northern Arizona state parks, Fool Hollow Lake and Homolovi Ruins, would join the bridge in closing Nov. 1. Arizona has a total of 30 state parks.
The closures were necessitated by a 16-percent or $1.3-million cut in the Parks Department budget by the state legislature. The recommended closures, along with user fee increases of $1 to $10 now go before the State Parks Board for final approval at a public meeting at 10 a.m. June 20.
When informed of the recommendation, Scott Flake, chairman of the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation, said, "You're kidding. That's surprising and very disappointing to hear."
Ware said he plans to address the board at that time and will organize a group of northern Arizona chamber officials and local leaders to attend with him. The meeting will be held in the Maricopa County Supervisors Auditorium, 205 W. Jefferson Street in Phoenix.
"We need to have some unified voices that say you're going to kill us, you are just absolutely going to kill us," he said. "Where is the logic? We spend millions of dollars around the world trying to draw traffic to Arizona and then we emasculate our destination activities. If you've got a planeload of folks coming from England or Germany for the Western experience and we screw them, there's a good chance that you're going to see a nice article in the London Times saying these folks don't deliver. That concerns me greatly."
One alternative to park closures, Ware believes, is "deferred maintenance."
"We can do other things to save money besides killing our parks department," he said. "Don't expand Karchner (Caverns State Park) for a couple years. We waited 22 years from the time we discovered it until we opened it, so it's OK and the bats will be happy."
Murphy suggested that the state turn the park over to the town of Payson and Gila County if it's not interested in keeping the attraction open.
"My feeling is we ought to get together with Ron Christensen and figure out a way to get the bridge away from them," Murphy said.
Christensen was unavailable for comment.
All three leaders agreed the impact on the local economy will be devastating.
"We've got a closed forest," Ware said. "We've got three signs when you leave Mesa and Fountain Hills that say, 'Turn around. The forest is closed.' If people want to go hiking, the bridge is the only place we can send them to right now. The state has to leave tourism venues open for us."
Long considered a Rim country treasure, the bridge is the fourth busiest state park, with more than 100,000 visitors each year.