Tonto Bridge Under Attack ... Again

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Local officials are trying to organize a grassroots campaign to deter possible raids on the Heritage Fund by the state Legislature.

In its proposed budget, the Republican-controlled Legislature wants to take $20 million from the Heritage Fund in 2003 and another $10 million in 2004, a move that would result in the closing of many, if not all, state parks, including Tonto Natural Bridge.

Establishment of the Heritage Fund was approved by voters in 1990 in part to avoid such eventualities.

"Every time they have a budget crisis in the state, the last thing that's funded is the parks," Ellen Bilbrey, public information officer for the state parks department, said. "So the public passed a referendum that $10 million would go into Game and Fish and parks (each year) no matter what. That is the Heritage Fund."

Besides funding Game and Fish and parks, Heritage Fund monies are awarded to individual communities in the form of grants for outdoor recreational purposes. Green Valley Park, for example, was built with a $186,000 matching grant in 1993, and the town has also received two grants totaling $235,000 for Rumsey Park from the Heritage Fund.

All outdoor recreational enthusiasts will be impacted, according to Pam Jones, director of the nonprofit Arizona Heritage Alliance, a group formed to protect the Heritage Fund from such assaults.

"This money goes into the local communities for parks and trails construction, and it also is used by Game and Fish and the Parks Department for access to public lands through private lands, so it allows hunters and fishermen and birders to have that access that brings them to the areas for in-state tourism," Jones said.

"By law, the money sits in an account for three years," Bilbrey said. "Right now, there's $29 million in our account, and (the Legislature is) saying they can take that money."

To help deter such a move, Bob Ware, executive director of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, is asking residents to lodge protests with state legislators.

"They need to tell the legislators that we need to keep that fund intact," Ware said. "It's going to injure the state parks board and also Game and Fish, and I think the net effect is going to be the curtailing of their enjoyment of the great outdoors, and also the ability to keep many of our destination venues open."

Ware said raiding the Heritage Fund has long-term implications beyond park closures.

"As we cut things out, we're going to end up deferring projects that we should do now," he said. "We're going to miss out on low-priced money we could have used now -- right this second. We're going to miss out on construction costs that are lower now. By failing to have that money, it's going to defer the projects and then they might be too expensive or we'll have to build them smaller."

The threat of park closures is even worse than last year, according to Bilbrey.

"It's a lot deeper -- much, much, much deeper than last year," she said.

Last year, it took an outpouring of public sentiment to get a bill passed in special session to overturn the closure of 11 state parks, including the Tonto Natural Bridge. Seven of the parks had already closed by the time the Legislature finally acted.

The closures were announced by the state Parks Board 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 subsequent meeting of the state parks board held at the bridge July 18, 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. Ware also spearheaded that effort.

Gov. Janet Napolitano also has proposed a budget that does not touch the Heritage Fund.

"We can work with the governor's budget," Bilbrey said. "It gives us a lot of flexibility, but the Legislature's budget would take it all."

Ware said there is no time to lose.

"We have to do it now because if we wait another 60 days, it's a fait accompli," he said.

Besides contacting Rim country legislators, Ware wants concerned residents to "talk to them all."

"Go to the state Legislature website and get their addresses and send them a blanket e-mail," he said. "Just go crazy. Let's don't wait because we're all going to be losers if we do."

The state Legislature website is www.azleg.state.az.us. Additional information and regular updates are available at the Arizona Heritage alliance website -- www.arizonaheritagealliance.org.

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