The Arizona State Parks board Friday asked staff to investigate whether Tonto Natural Bridge could reopen during construction work on the lodge, salvaging the crucial summer travel season.
Assistant Director Jay Ream after the meeting said he would ask contractors whether they could fence the deteriorating historic lodge during construction and still allow visitors to drive past the lodge to reach the parking lots and trailhead.
He also promised to investigate whether a plan to close other parks two days a week and the use of seasonal rangers would provide enough extra manpower to open Tonto Natural Bridge at least during weekends through the busy tourist season.
The agreement to look into a limited opening offered a potential solution to the park closure. Faced with the legislature’s mid-year $34-million cut, the parks board had extended a hiring freeze and laid off all the part-time and seasonal workers — which left the 30-park system about 26 percent short of full staffing levels.
Closing Tonto bridge for maintenance allowed the system to move two or three rangers to other parks, like Slide Rock in Sedona.
Ream for the first time said he would consider bringing back some of the seasonal rangers to reopen Tonto bridge before the end of construction, now expected sometime before September.
Four Rim Country officials pleaded with the parks board to reopen the park as soon as possible, asserting that struggling businesses here get an estimated $3.6 million in revenue from the more than 90,000 visitors who use the park annually — mostly during the summer tourist season.
“The message is that we’ll do anything we can to get that park open and give you any help you need,” said Payson Councilor Mike Vogel.
“We can get you all the volunteers you need and I personally will work every weekend,” said Bill Ensign, head of Payson Friends of Parks and Recreation and a former Scottsdale recreation director.
Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton said there’s plenty of room to fence the construction site, without preventing people from getting into the park and hiking down to the world’s largest travertine arch.
As park officials continued to offer contrasting explanations as to why the board closed the park, Stanton appealed for a compromise that would reopen the park at least part time during the spring and summer tourist season.
“We feel like we’re in the middle of a game of tennis,” said Stanton, in reference to the back and forth lobbying involving the legislature and the parks board.
Board member Larry Landry said all the communities affected by the closures and potential closures should vigorously lobby the legislature, which imposed the mid-year cuts that have forced parks users to essentially subsidize other state services.
The Rim Country contingent left frustrated with the constant shift in explanations for the closure of Tonto Natural Bridge, one of three parks closed abruptly for emergency work on potentially structurally unsound buildings. The other two closed parks are historical parks, where the buildings have become unsafe to occupy.
However, most people who visit Tonto bridge hike down to the stream and arch, without stopping in the gift shop on the ground floor of the decaying, historic lodge.
Contractors seeking to work on the $500,000 project must turn in their bids this week. The contract proposal would give the contractors until September to finish the work, which includes removing the roof and determining whether leaks untreated for years have done structural damage.
Ream said bids on several other emergency projects have come in about 20 percent below expectations, as contractors desperate for work slash their rates.
During Ream’s presentation before the board, he initially emphasized staffing difficulties in explaining the closure. Normally, Tonto bridge has at least three rangers on the weekend. Now, only the head ranger remains on site to protect the facilities and work with the contractor. The other rangers have been shuttled to other short-handed parks.
Landry said the board and state lawmakers have all been heavily lobbied by Rim Country officials to keep the park open.
“So is it staffing or is it safety?” queried Landry. “Because if it’s just staffing, then I think staff should be moved around to keep that park open.”
“It’s both,” said Ream.
“It’s safety,” said State Parks Director Ken Travous.
Travous at one point in the meeting said he took “offense” at suggestions by several lawmakers that the state parks board had closed Tonto Natural Bridge and threatened to close eight other parks for “political” reasons, hoping people would protest the closures to the lawmakers.
Rim Country officials did host a public meeting in Payson, where two Rim Country state lawmakers both blamed the parks board for the closure and accused them of playing politics with the issue.
The $34-million mid-year cut took back almost all of the general fund money the parks had been promised for the current year, and “swept” cash balances out of a host of dedicated funds. That included almost all of the lottery-based Heritage Fund money, with which the parks board gives out millions in grants for local projects and makes many parks improvements. The legislature also swept money out of a fund financed by a gas tax paid by boat owners that is supposed to pay for lake improvements, which is controlled by the parks board.
In fact, the legislature’s sweeps mean that in the current fiscal year, users of state parks subsidized other state departments.
The plight of Tonto Natural Bridge was one brief item in a long and contentious agenda at the five-hour meeting, crowded with people pleading for threatened parks or canceled grants. In addition to laying off all the part-time and seasonal staff, the parks board had canceled some $12 million worth of Heritage Fund projects, some of them already under construction.
In a separate board report on budget prospects for 2009-2010, Travous said the parks should prepare for an additional $12 million cut.
He recommended the board divert $12 million in next year’s Heritage grants to cover the budget for the parks system. Given the shrunken staff, cancellation of most capital projects and other savings, that should be enough for the system to “limp” along for another year without closing any parks.
The board debated whether the system should cancel all Heritage grants to keep all the parks open next year. Landry argued that in some cases the Heritage grants were more important than continuing to operate the whole system during the downturn. Moreover, he said that actually closing parks might prompt local communities to lobby lawmakers to get them reopened.
Landry moved to immediately shut down Slide Rock State Park, which gets 250,000 visitors annually — most during the summer. He said the closure would generate protests and perhaps convince lawmakers to restore park funding. His motion died for lack of a second.
The board also voted to support House Bill 1088, which would restore many of the cuts this year and next by allowing the parks system to borrow $20 million from a taxpayer-established fund to buy open space. That fund has accumulated about $94 million, largely for lack of cities that can provide the necessary matching funds to get grants to buy land.
Republicans have supported the loan, which would be repaid chiefly by continuing to deposit lottery funds into the account for an extra two years. Democrats have opposed the measure, mostly for fear of setting a precedent that would allow the legislature to raid other voter-established funds. Since the measure requires a three-fourths approval, some political observers consider it all but dead.
Prospects for reopening Tonto Natural Bridge did improve measurably as a result of the meeting, however, after the board directed staff to figure out what a part-time reopening might cost.
The park board also gave the administration authority to close any of the parks up to two days a week. Ream later said he was considering five-day-a-week operations for eight state parks, including Fort Verde and Red Rock. That could potentially free up three to five ranger positions, which would ease understaffing and perhaps provide a ranger or two for transferring.
In discussions after the meeting Ream said he would investigate whether he could find the money to bring back some of the laid off, seasonal rangers and reopen Tonto Natural Bridge during the summer-long construction project, assuming such an opening would not interfere with construction.
“I’m not making any promises, but the board has asked us to look at it and that’s what we’ll do.”