Tonto Bridge Faces Indefinite State Closure

Travertine arch will close gates Thursday for lodge repairs, but re-opening depends on state park budget turnaround

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Tom Brossart/Roundup

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park went from not being considered for closure to being closed with just a few days’ notice. The park will be indefinitely closed on Thursday.

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park will shut down indefinitely on Friday to shift staff to other struggling parks, say park officials.

When the park will re-open is a question bothering Rim Country officials as state parks representatives will provide no assurance when or if the park will open again. The park and 10 other state parks earmarked to be closed may become a pawn in the state parks board effort to get HB 2088 approved by the legislature. The bill would restore some money to the parks budget.

State park officials said they will take advantage of the closure to make about $600,000 in repairs to the historic lodge, which could provide jobs for local contractors.

Park officials hope the park can eventually reopen — perhaps even before the six months it will take to make the repairs. However, the fate of Tonto bridge and the other state parks marked for closure will depend on the 2010 budget and whether the state legislature rejects a plan for parks to borrow from a separate state fund.

The ultimate fate of the park that showcases a 188-foot-high travertine arch and a historic lodge and homestead remained shrouded in unanswered questions on Tuesday morning.

“We’ll be closing at the end of the day on Thursday. Don’t know how long for, it’s kind of an indefinite thing,” said Park Manager John Boeck. “We were surprised at the decision.”

The park draws more than 94,000 visitors annually, two-thirds of them state residents. A recent report said the park generates about 38 jobs and a $3.6 million annual economic impact in Rim Country.

The potentially indefinite closure of Tonto and the other state parks appears all but certain, unless local groups ride to the rescue or the legislature approves a loan from the $76-million, voter-mandated “Growing Smarter” fund.

Ellen Bilbrey, spokesperson for the state parks said she did not know how long Tonto bridge will remain closed. “I have no idea. It depends. Even if we get the roof fixed, will we have money to keep it open? The 2010 budget hasn’t passed yet — so I don’t know.”

Bilbrey said the immediate closure of Tonto and two other parks with serious maintenance problems will allow the transfer of staff to other parks facing manpower shortages as a result of an earlier decision to cut staffing systemwide by 21 percent.

“We’re trying to figure out ways to move staff around,” said Bilbrey.

The State Parks Board has already reduced manpower from 336 to 271. That means parks still open face a critical manpower shortage at the start of the busy visitation season.

The plight of Tonto Natural Bridge, one of the biggest tourist draws in the Rim Country, was muddled by the need to make repairs on the roof of the lodge.

State parks officials, during a Friday meeting in the Valley, said the construction equipment needed to repair the lodge would block the road and force the temporary closure of the park.

Boeck said the park has been planning the repairs for several years and never previously anticipated closing during construction.

“Last Wednesday was the first I heard of it,” said Boeck.

He estimated it would take two or three months to get bids on the project and another two or three months to make the repairs.

Bilbrey said on Monday the park could remain open during construction or reopen even if construction crews had not finished.

The long-deferred repairs at Tonto bridge became critical after the last heavy snow, when the deteriorating roof began to leak copiously.

“This option will allow us to get in there and fix the roof, which is leaking like a sieve,” said Bilbrey.

State Parks will use maintenance money that has accumulated in past years in a special fund financed by the Arizona Lottery. The state legislature took more than $10 million from that fund this year to balance its budget, but hasn’t so far swept maintenance money accumulated from pervious years.

As a result, the state parks can make repairs at Tonto Natural Bridge, Jerome State Park and MacFarland State Park with left-over maintenance money this year — providing the legislature doesn’t come back and take that as well.

All told, the legislature this year took nearly $35 million from various state park funds. As a result, state parks will not only get virtually no general fund money, but money from the fees paid by park visitors and dedicated funds will actually subsidize other state departments.

“Bear in mind, we’ve had essentially no maintenance budget since 2002,” said Bilbrey.

In addition to the three parks closed for maintenance this week, eight other parks face probable closure soon.

Those additional parks include Lyman Lake near Springerville, a destination for many summer visitors passing through Rim Country. Other parks include the Quartermaster Depot in Yuma, Homolovi near Winslow, the Tubac Presidio, Fort Verde, Riordan Mansion in Flagstaff and Red Rock State Park in Sedona.

Tonto bridge’s last-minute addition to the closure list last week took park officials and Rim Country leaders by surprise.

Payson Recreation and Tourism Director Cameron Davis and Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton both attended the overflowing meeting in the Valley on Friday and came away reassured that the closure would prove temporary.

However, that possibility darkened considerably this week as details of the shift in staff and budget picture trickled out.

On the face of it, Tonto Natural Bridge seemed in a strong position to forestall any thoughts of closure.

The state subsidy amounts to just 56 cents per visitor, even though the fees pay for the mortgage on the property. Other state parks run at a much higher deficit.

Moreover, the park had just raised entrance fees and Boeck predicted the increase would have made the park entirely self-supporting this season.

“With the Jan. 1 increase, we should be making money at this time,” said Boeck.

A last-minute financial move could save Tonto and the other parks on the closure list.

State parks officials are pushing the legislature to allow parks to borrow from the $76-million “Growing Smarter” fund, which taxpayers approved several years ago. That voter initiative set aside $20 million annually to buy additional state land for parks and open space.

State Parks advocates want to borrow enough money from that fund to get through the next two years without major closures in the 27-park state system.

The legislature would have to approve any such loan by a three-quarters vote, said Bilbrey.

The other slim hope for Tonto Natural Bridge lies in a rescue by local advocates and towns that benefit from the tourism money the park interjects into local economies.

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