Arizona State Parks may shut down entirely before October, but Rim Country leaders say they’ll keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open no matter what happens to the rest of the system.
Local advocates for the world’s largest natural travertine bridge met with a high-level delegation from state parks on Wednesday to discuss the formation of a local foundation to support the park as well as a backup plan to enable the Town of Payson to run the park if the system collapses for lack of money.
“The question is, can the state park system stay alive? I don’t know,” said Assistant Director Jay Ream.
The deficit-plagued state legislature has taken about $50 million from various state parks funds in the past several years. A budget standoff between the legislature and the governor resulted in the veto of a host of spending bills, which could force the parks to shut down by October, said Ream.
Even if the legislature passes new legislation, the budget for the current fiscal year provided state parks with just $18 million of the $30-million it needs to operate the full, 27-park system.
Against that dire backdrop, Rim Country leaders agreed on Wednesday to form a local chapter of the Arizona State Parks Foundation, to lobby for the Tonto Natural Bridge and state parks generally.
Moreover, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans has negotiated an agreement with the state that would allow the town to take over the park temporarily should the system shut down.
In the meantime, the park will remain open on weekends with a skeletal state park staff and an augmented core of volunteers.
Ream said the parks can’t survive in the current political climate without strong local support.
“When it comes to closing parks, there needs to be the face of the community on that target. When we first told the legislature we would have to close three parks, they said ‘close eight more and we’ll take that money too,’” said Ream.
Ream noted that a recent study showed that state parks generate an economic benefit of $266 million annually. State parks receive a total of $6.1 million in taxpayer money, but spending by visitors generates $22.7 million in state and local taxes. So just in terms of taxes, $1 in taxpayer money spent on state parks generates $3.72 in additional tax revenue — most of it in economically hard-pressed rural communities, concluded the Northern Arizona University economists who did the study.
Tonto Natural Bridge last year attracted 93,000 visitors and generated an estimated $26 million in local economic activity. This summer, the bridge has been open just two days a week, but visitation has remained strong.
“That’s why it’s so frustrating dealing with those people (in the legislature),” said Bill Meek, president of the Arizona State Parks Foundation, “because they don’t mind a bit cutting off their noses to spite their faces.”
“More like cutting off our noses,” interjected Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton.
Ream noted that state parks still has an ambitious master plan to turn Tonto Natural Bridge into a money-making park. Currently, construction crews are repairing and strengthening the historic lodge, once a 10-room inn with a popular restaurant. The $2-million master plan would open the lodge once more to guests, along with rental cabins — and perhaps a new U.S. Forest Service campground.
However, short-term financial survival will take precedence over such long-term planning in the next six months, conceded Ream. For now, that means a frantic effort by the State Parks Board to shift enough money from various accounts to keep the doors open.
For instance, the parks board controls a fund financed by taxes on sales of gasoline for boats, which is supposed to be used to develop and maintain lakes, allowing motorized craft. The board also controls a stash of lottery money that’s supposed to go for new parks and facilities. The board will probably have to use most of the money from those funds for basic operating costs, since the legislature swept most of the admissions fees.
However, the vetoed bills make most of those fund transfers impossible.
“The governor vetoed all the bills that allow us to make these transfers, so if they don’t pass again, it doesn’t matter what we do — we’re out of money in October,” said Ream.