Gloom turned to joy for Rim Country advocates for Tonto Natural Bridge State Park on Tuesday, as the State Parks Board voted to close the park only temporarily to fix the roof of an historic lodge near collapse as a result of recent heavy snowfall.
Media report had indicated the soaring travertine arch between Pine and Payson had been added to a list of 11 state parks facing the threat of long term closure after the state legislature drastically cut the state parks budget in the middle of the fiscal year to narrow the groaning state budget deficit.
However, once the board took up the question, Tonto Natural Bridge quickly moved off the death list – and actually came up with additional money to fix the roof of the lodge – which the parks master plan envisions turning into a guest lodge.
“Good news. Basically we win,” said Rim Country Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton, in a phone call at noon as soon as the board decided the fate of Tonto Natural Bridge.
“They will be closing on a temporary basis, four to six weeks, to fix the roof,” said Stanton, since the construction equipment will block the access road.
The Payson Roundup and other media reported that the bridge had been added to a list of 11 parks facing closure – but at the meeting it turned out some of those closures were just temporary to allow for long overdue repairs.
Stanton said the board decided to spend some of the already earmarked maintenance money to avoid much more expensive structural failures, before the state legislature could take even that saved up repair money.
Stanton said Tonto Bridge’s near-death experience alerted Rim Country officials to the peril and would hopefully help rally the volunteers the park needs to keep operating, since the parks board also approved a statewide layoff of temporary and seasonal workers that will cost the bridge half its work force during the busy summer season.
Tonto Natural Bridge was among three state parks added to a list of parks that could close as a result of Arizona’s budget crisis or dangerously overdue maintenance. Others include Red Rock and Jerome Historic State Park.
The Parks Board meeting in Peoria on Friday had not discussed the Tonto Natural Bridge prior to Friday’s press time for the Roundup. The board had not concluded its debate on which parks to close prior to the posting date of this article.
The meeting, crammed with parks advocates from all over the state, represented an emergency effort to cope with $34.6 million in agency budget cuts.
Stanton and Payson Recreation and Tourism Director Cameron Davis attended the meeting to make a plea to keep Tonto Natural Bridge Open, since it represents one of the major tourist draws for the hard hit local economy.
The results of the meeting were not available at press time, however, state park officials earlier said the board is facing the need for drastic cuts.
“We’re a tiny agency,” said Ellen Bilbrey, a public information officer for Arizona State Parks. “This is a severe crisis.”
Tonto Natural Bridge drew 94,000 visitors in 2007 and produced roughly $3.6 million of income for Gila County. Those visitors spent nearly $900,000 on retail shopping and lodging alone, according to one economic impact study.
Arizona legislators recently revised this year’s budget to compensate for a $1.6 billion shortfall, and agencies statewide took cuts. In next year’s budget, legislators must compensate for a deficit that could top $3 billion.
Tonto Natural Bridge covers almost all of its own costs from entrance fees – including the payments on the loan necessary to buy the park from the pioneering family that once owned it. In 2007, the state’s contribution to the park amounted to 50 cents per visitor, compared to $2.52 per visitor at Red Rock State Park in Sedona.
“Our goal is to keep parks open,” said Bilbrey.
However, the drastic cuts that have been approved will still force Tonto Natural Bridge to perhaps shorten its hours and to rely much more heavily on volunteers due to the lost of its seasonal staff.
Tonto Natural Bridge features a 183-foot-high travertine bridge that stretches over a 150-foot long tunnel.
Park Manager John Boeck had begun efforts to restore the historic lodge before the economic downturn dampered his vision.
Earlier this month, half of Tonto’s staff lost their jobs.
The park’s operating budget includes payments on the roughly $3 million lease-purchase agreement through which the state bought the land. Wells Fargo officially owns the property.