Volunteers Flock To Bridge

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Rim country residents answered the call for more volunteers at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park in force.

In fact, 41 potential volunteers showed up for an open house and initial training session at the state park Sept. 12. And since then another six have volunteered.

"We've had just a tremendous outpouring from the public and they're all very skilled people," said park ranger Cathe Descheemaker, who is in charge of training the group. "We've got people from every field imaginable. It's just a really good group."

Increasing the number of park volunteers is one of several strategies being employed by the state parks board in an attempt to ease the department's financial woes caused by a growing state budget deficit.

A statewide hiring freeze has reduced personnel levels at many state parks, including the bridge.

Earlier this summer, the bridge and 10 other state parks were slated to be closed indefinitely to make up for a 16 percent or $1.3 million cut in the Parks Department budget imposed by the state legislature and Gov. Jane Dee Hull. Seven of the parks in southern Arizona actually were closed for a time, while the bridge and three other northern parks were scheduled to close after the summer tourist season.

The decision triggered a public outcry in many affected communities, including the Rim country where residents packed a meeting of the state parks board held at the bridge, and deluged the governor, legislators and parks officials with phone calls, e-mails and letters urging them to find a way to keep the bridge open.

Subsequently, the governor signed a bill passed in a special session of the state legislature authorizing a supplemental appropriation of $450,000 from the department's enhancement fund that allowed all state parks to remain open for the year.

In addition, the parks department staff launched a new recruiting program to attract additional volunteers, an idea put forward at the parks board meeting held at the bridge by Scott Flake, chairman of the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation. The Payson Packers and several other groups present at that meeting promised to provide the new volunteers.

"All 30 state parks are currently recruiting new volunteers to help with the many different types of tasks and projects that keep state parks operating," Ellen Bilbrey, state parks public information officer, said.

Last year, 700 volunteers donated 140,000 hours. They include individuals, families, and groups and organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and local hiking and outdoor clubs.

"What they have in common is that they care about the preservation and interpretation of recreational and historical places," Bilbrey said.

Volunteers can choose from a wide variety of activities and duties. At the Tonto Natural Bridge, they fall into six categories:

Park ambassadors: "These are the people who are out in the field carrying two-way radios for emergencies, greeting visitors, pointing out points of interest," Descheemaker said. "More people want to do this than anything else."

Maintenance: Includes helping to manicure the park grounds, keeping up with the painting and other maintenance functions.

Lawn maintenance: Includes mowing and cutting weeds.

Gardening: Tending to the flower beds and other garden areas in the park.

Interpretive rangers: Making presentations and conducting tours on specific subjects. This group undergoes the most extensive training, including a special seminar that will be held at the bridge Oct. 17.

Gift shop: Operating the gift shop located in the lodge.

The 41 new bridge volunteers are currently undergoing training in groups of four, and some of them are already on the job.

"Many of them are coming in two, three times a week and spending the day," Descheemaker said.

While park officials are pleased with the current group of volunteers, they encourage even more people to get involved. "We won't turn anyone down," Descheemaker said.

For more information on becoming a volunteer, call the bridge office at 476-4202, the state parks office at (602) 542-7152, or visit the state parks website at azstateparks.com.

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