Leaders Lose Fight To Save Tonto Bridge

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The State Parks Board voted 4-3 to close indefinitely the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park Nov. 1, despite the protests of a large contingent of Rim country leaders.

"They had their minds made up," said Bob Ware, executive director of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce and one of those who spoke on behalf of the bridge at the board's meeting Thursday morning in the Valley.

"We convinced three of the seven to vote against the closure," Ware said, "but we were a vote short."

The closure was in response to a 16 percent, or $1.3 million, cut in the Parks Department budget by the state legislature. It is 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, two other northern Arizona state parks, Fool Hollow Lake, which was evacuated Wednesday because of the Rodeo Fire, and 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 will close indefinitely July 1.

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.

The parks board also voted to increase entrance fees at various parks, including an increase at the bridge from $5 to $6 per car effective July 1.

The parks board will hold another public meeting, this one at the bridge at 1 p.m., Wednesday, July 17. Ware is encouraging residents to attend and voice their feelings about the closure.

"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."

Ware also noted that information provided by the parks staff at the meeting on Thursday showed that 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.

Ellen Bilbrey, public information officer for the state parks, commended Ware for his presentation to the board. She said the parks budget crunch will be further exacerbated by the closing of two of the top revenue generating parks.

One source of revenue for the parks department during what is beginning to look like a very weak season is private donations.

"People can make a donation to just the bridge, or to the parks system in general," Bilbrey said. "Everybody's scrambling to come up with ways, ideas to get us through this budget problem."

Bridge donations can be made at the park or by mailing them to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, P.O. Box 124, Payson, AZ 85547. For more information on donating to the state parks department, call Bilbrey at (602) 542-1996.

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