Tonto Natural Bridge State Park has put out an urgent plea for volunteer workers after learning it must lay off half its staff to cope with “devastating” legislative budget cuts.
Staggered by the a mid-year $5-million budget cut approved by lawmakers over the weekend, the Arizona State Parks Board this week held an emergency meeting to find alternatives to closing eight of the state’s 27 parks.
“We do not have enough money to run the parks until June,” said assistant director Jay Ziemann. “The parks system is rapidly falling apart.”
The legislature has now not only cut general fund contributions to the park to a fraction of the operating cost, but has swept some $32 million from various funds earmarked by law for various park and recreation purposes.
Tonto Natural Bridge features a 183-foot-high arch of travertine over a 150-foot-long tunnel dissolved in a wall of rock. The park remains one of the best-known attractions in Rim Country, where towns are struggling to maintain tourism in the face of the downturn.
The cuts have killed the staff’s hopes for money to fix a leaky roof and restore the historic lodge, which park managers had hoped to contract for this spring. Now, the park will need more volunteers just to maintain minimal operations.
Park Manager John Boeck said the park system laid off all part-time and seasonal employees, which at Tonto Bridge amounted to half the staff. The park hopes to recruit more volunteers to make sure at least two people are working throughout the summer, when the park remains open 11 hours a day.
The park draws about 95,000 visitors annually and is nearly self-supporting, even though the operating budget includes payments on the roughly $3 million lease-purchase agreement through which the state bought the land.
“If we continue to have money problems, hopefully we wouldn’t stop making payments and it won’t end up being the Wells Fargo natural bridge,” said Boeck. “Things aren’t looking too good — but we have hopes things will get better and we’ll keep operating the park as best we can.”
To volunteer, call the park at (928) 474-4202 and leave a message for Larry Cltes, the volunteer coordinator.
The State Parks Director had recommended closing eight parks, including Fort Verde in the Verde Valley, Homolovi near Holbrook, Riordan Mansion in Flagstaff, Oracle near Tucson, McFarland Tubac, Lyman Lake and the Yuma Quartermaster Depot. Those lightly visited parks cost far more to run than they collect in fees, said Ziemann. However, the closure of Fort Verde would be another blow to Rim tourism, since it’s billed as a short jaunt for visitors to the area.
The state legislature took back $5 million it had previously budgeted to run state parks — which amounts to a nearly 20-percent cut in the operating budget with half the year left.
All told, this year the legislature has taken $32 million out of various statutory funds included in the state parks budget — like a tax on gasoline sales for boats used to develop and maintain recreational lakes. The legality of the diversion of funds with legal strings attached has not been tested.
The general fund money used to run the parks has dropped from $8.3 million last year to about $3 million with more cuts predicted.
It costs about $27 million annually to run the state’s parks, which include various historical sites, lakes, recreational sites and limestone caves. Only Slide Rock in Sedona, Buckskin and Cattail Cove on the Colorado River, Lake Havasu, Catalina near Tucson, Lost Dutchman in the Superstitions and Kartchner Caverns near Benson actually make money on fees, said Ziemann.
Most of the operating funds for parks come from fees charged at the parks. Previously, the legislature covered about a third of the total cost from the general fund.
The Parks Board met in emergency session but flinched from a staff recommendation to close the eight parks running the largest operating deficits early this week.
“The board asked us to further study the options,” said Ziemann, which appear increasingly grim.
The state parks system went through a similar budgetary near-death experience in 2003, when it used almost all of its maintenance and capital improvement money to pay operating costs. Even as state spending was rising at a 16-percent annual rate for several years, the parks budget never recovered.
“Since 2003, we’ve not had an increase in our operating budget,” said Ziemann. “That means we have not had a meaningful capital budget since then. Douglas Mansion in Jerome is literally falling down, you can stick your arm into a hole in the wall in McFarland and the roof at the historic lodge at Tonto Natural Bridge desperately needs repairing.
“We’ve just been limping along since 2003, that’s why cuts of this magnitude are just devastating to the parks system,” he said.
The parks board asked for more detail on alternatives and deferred a decision on specific cuts and closures to its Feb. 20 meeting.
Ziemann said that volunteers already provide about 20 percent of the manpower necessary to run the system, but that volunteers can’t perform essential functions like law enforcement, rescues and handling money.
“We can’t operate the park system without the volunteers — and we’ve got some outstanding volunteers at Tonto Natural Bridge,” said Ziemann. “We’d certainly love to have more volunteers — but there are some things volunteers just can’t do.”
However, at this point the survival of the system is in doubt.
“I’m not sure what the future holds,” he said. “I don’t know that anybody would just vote to close state parks — it’s hard to believe if that was the only question that anyone would vote for that.”
Boeck observed, “We went through something similar in ’81 — a reduction in force because they took away funds. And we came back from that. Whatever happens this time, we’ll come back from that also. We have a lot of great employees, and they’ll do everything they can to keep everything going.”