The Arizona State Parks will probably avoid any more closures in the short term and Payson this week renewed a backup agreement with the state to keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open regardless of what happens to the rest of the system.
“We have plan A, B and C — and in every case, Tonto bridge stays open,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park draws about 94,000 visitors annually, who pump $3.6 million into the local economy, according to a recently completed study on the economic impact of state parks.
The state parks board this week adopted a $21.4 million budget to keep the 30-park system operating, although many parks may curtail their hours of operation. The board has hacked $36 million out of the state parks budget in the past two years, as the legislature has raided various park funds.
The most recent budget assumes the legislature will soon pass a measure to allow the parks board to shift money from one fund to another, for
instance, using money from boat registrations and off-highway vehicles to keep parks open. Previously, those funds were earmarked for park improvements.
The Arizona State Parks Foundation, which now has a Rim Country branch devoted to saving the world’s largest travertine arch from closure, has put out an urgent plea to residents to lobby the legislature on behalf of the endangered park system —which draws about 2.3 million visitors annually, who contribute an estimated $266-million to mostly rural economies.
Newly appointed State Parks Director Renee Bahl said the legislature has now swept all of the various park funds — including $3 million from entry entry fees.
The state parks board cobbled together some $21 million in operating money, although it normally takes $30 million to cover routine operations.
The survival budget for the current fiscal year leaves no money to repair deteriorating historical sites or provide needed, safety-related improvements for busy state parks fronting on the Colorado River.
Moreover, the legislature is now considering actually selling state parks and perhaps leasing them back from private investors, in an effort to raise money to offset rising deficits projected for the current fiscal year.
The legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer still haven’t agreed on a final budget for the current fiscal year, which started July 1, mostly as a result of a disagreement about a proposed, temporary increase in the state sales tax. The legislature passed a budget, but Brewer vetoed much of it — leaving the state with just enough money to continue operating. However, those vetoes struck down legislation that would have made it possible for the state parks to get through by shifting money among different funds, which compounded the impact of a second year of deep cuts.
Selling state buildings, parks
The legislative budget Brewer vetoed would have set in motion a plan to essentially sell and lease back many state buildings, including prisons, and possibly state parks.
The state legislative analyst had estimated the lease-back arrangements would have generated $735 million to apply to the deficit this year, with the state paying back $1.2 billion over the 20-year term of the leases.
Tonto Natural Bridge has been skirting economic disaster for most of the last six months. On the upside, the state parks board last year decided to use hoarded construction funds to fix the leaking roof and deteriorating structure. Crews should complete those repairs in another month, which would eventually make it possible to restore the historic lodge to a money-making inn.
However, the state parks board also shut down the natural bridge for several months to shift staff elsewhere. Two months ago, the state agreed to allow the bridge to open on weekends, with help from volunteers and money from Payson to pay ranger salaries.
Mayor Evans said the town so far has agreed to pay about $4,000 in costs for part-time rangers to keep the Tonto Natural Bridge open on summer weekends.
The town concluded a new agreement this week with the state to operate the park under the terms of a special use permit, should the park system run out of money or the legislature fail to approve the necessary bills to allow the shifting of funds. That agreement will let the town operate the park and keep the gate fees, with law enforcement provided by the Gila County Sheriff’s Office — perhaps the volunteer sheriff’s posse.
Entry fees would likely cover the costs of the park’s operation. The park nearly broke even on operating costs before this year’s increase in admission fees. Visitation has dropped this year, since the park remains open only on weekends. However, average weekend visitation has jumped, say park officials.
Visits to the whole system have declined since 2000, from about 2.5 million to 2.3 million. That echoes the trend at the national parks and national forests. Visitors to Tonto bridge peaked at 100,000 in 2000, hit a low of 83,000 in 2006, then rebounded.
Bahl said the overall park system needs between $18 million and $22 million more to avert the first statewide closure in the system’s 50-year history. That would amount to less than half a percent of the current, projected $3.4 billion deficit, she said. The state budget totals about $11 billion.
“Not to provide such modest funding will effectively wipe out more than 50 years of taxpayer investment in buying, building and opening such heavily visited places.”
A recent economic study concluded spending by the million people who visited state parks in 2007 generated more in tax revenue than it cost to operate the parks, including Kartchner Caverns near Benson.
State parks visitors generated $266 million in direct, indirect and induced economic activity and 3,300 jobs, according to the study by economists from Northern Arizona University. That spending produced $42 million in state, local and federal taxes — about one-third more than the budget for running the parks.
The study did not count spending by people who live within 50 miles of the parks, since that money isn’t “added” to the local economy.
A handful of parks produced most of that revenue and activity. Money spent by visitors to the top parks include $34 million at Lake Havasu, $30 million at Slide Rock in Sedona, $20 million at Catalina near Tucson, $17 million at Red Rock State Park in Sedona, $12 million at Kartchner Caverns, $10 million at Buckskin Island on the Colorado River and $7.2 million at the Tombstone Courthouse.
Gila County, with a single state park, reaped $3.6 million in economic benefits and 38 jobs. The county actually ranked next to last statewide, just ahead of the $2.5 million in benefits to Apache County generated by Lyman Lake. Only Maricopa County lacks any state parks at all.
Each out-of-the-area person who visits a state park spends an average of $70, concluded the study released earlier this year.
The 14 recreation-oriented parks — including Tonto Natural Bridge — therefore generate $157 million in economic activity, the nine historic parks generate $35 million and the four conservation parks generate $32 million, the report concluded.