The Payson Town Council has approved an innovative agreement to allow the town to take over Tonto Natural Bridge State Park in the event of a state budget meltdown.
The town council recently unanimously approved the extension of an agreement it had with the state parks system that kept the signature Rim Country tourist attraction open all summer, despite the state park’s budget crisis.
The need for such an extended agreement became obvious last week as the legislature extended its confrontation with Republican Gov. Jan Brewer by adopting virtually the same budget she vetoed six weeks ago. That vetoed budget included provisions that would allow state parks to shift money between various funds to remain open.
The new agreement with Payson would allow the town to hire people and contract with volunteers — including members of the Gila County Sheriff’s Posse — to keep the park open, at least on weekends.
Even if the legislature and the governor resolve a deadlock that has festered for months, the state parks system faces an ongoing crisis.
The state parks board recently decided to shift money from assorted funds to provide $19 million in operating funds for the 28-park system, about two-thirds the amount of operating funds the parks used two years ago.
The new parks budget doesn’t use any general money, but instead sweeps various designated funds — like a tax on gasoline used on boats that was supposed to be used to improve facilities at lakes and money from the lottery that was supposed to be used to buy parkland and improve facilities.
The state parks board had earlier closed Tonto Natural Bridge State Park to complete repairs on the historic lodge there, in hopes of some day reopening the lodge as a paying operation and to prevent a leaky roof from causing expensive structural damage.
Payson and the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce vigorously opposed that closure and eventually convinced the state parks board to keep Tonto Natural Bridge open on weekends if Payson paid salaries of part-time rangers, all of whom had been laid off as part of the state budget cuts.
The extended agreement should ensure Tonto Natural Bridge stays open through the fall, even if the state budget deadlock forces the closure of other parks in the system, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
Rim Country officials hope the agreement will lay the foundation for a better relationship with the state parks system.
Bill Ensign, a volunteer at the bridge and a member of the Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge said the newly-formed group decided Wednesday to join with the Arizona State Park Foundation.
The state foundation will help the group with fund-raising and provides an advocate at state parks meetings. There are 10 founding members of the Friends group and they are looking for more members.
The group also wants to involve the volunteers currently working at the park in their efforts.
“They are critical to the Friends, their involvement is very important,” Ensign said. The park volunteers coordinator Courtney Rogers is a member of the Friends group.
“There are bunch of dedicated people who are volunteering at the park currently,” Ensign said.
The volunteers, the Friends organization and town are all working together to keep the park open and viable for the entire area, he said. There are currently 30 to 35 volunteers.
Anyone interested in being a volunteer or joining the Friends can call Ensign at 472-2293 or John Stanton at the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, 474-4515.
Ultimately, both the state parks master plan and local advocates want to restore the historic lodge, build a set of rental cabins and open a nearby campground, to restore the park to the local resource and visitor Mecca it was before the state took over and shut down the lodge, tore down the cabins, closed a campground and shut down a spring-fed swimming pool.
A recent economic impact study suggests the 93,000 annual visitors to the park contribute about $3.6 million annually to the local economy.
However, visitation has been dropping for the past two or three years throughout the state parks system — as it has to the national forests and most national parks.
Weekend use of Tonto Natural Bridge, the world’s largest travertine arch, has risen this year, but visitation has dropped overall, because the park was only open two days a week through the busy summer travel season.