The three state lawmakers representing Rim Country have all vowed to reopen Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, after an overflow public meeting and a lobbying session in Phoenix.
Lawmakers vowed to press the State Parks Board to reopen the natural bridge, which last year drew more than 90,000 visitors, using volunteer workers or through an intergovernmental agreement if necessary.
“We have to get this park opened back up,” said Rep. Bill Konopnicki at the Wednesday town meeting held at the Best Western Inn. “I just can’t understand what the parks board was thinking...It’s politically motivated to make people yell at the legislature,” he said.
The State Parks Board last week closed down the 160-acre showcase for the world’s largest travertine arch to make repairs on the historic lodge and to shift rangers to other parks. The bridge gets more than 90,000 visitors annually and contributes an estimated $3.5 million annually to the Rim Country economy.
The State Park Board’s decision to cut Tonto came in response to the legislature’s decision to make a mid-year sweep of $34 million from various state park accounts.
The sweeps mean that the state parks will actually contribute more to the general fund than the parks receive. The cuts forced a 21 percent staff reduction. All told, the legislature swept about three times the actual operations budget of the 27 existing parks.
The parks board plans to close 14 of the 27 parks, starting with the three parks with serious maintenance problems.
About 150 people crowded into the meeting at the Best Western Hotel conference room in Payson on Tuesday to urge Konopnicki and Rep. Jack Brown to force state parks to reopen the park for the summer tourist season.
On Wednesday, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans and Rim Country Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton journeyed to the state senate offices in Phoenix to urge Sen. Sylvia Allen to pressure the parks to reopen the park quickly.
All three lawmakers vowed to push hard to reopen the park, while noting that the state budget crisis will make that tough.
Allen acknowledged that the state parks suffered a disproportionate cut in the scramble to deal with this year’s projected $1.8 billion state deficit.
“When the state is facing bankruptcy, what are you going to do?” asked Allen.
Advocates for schools, the mentally ill, the disabled and a host of other groups facing drastic cuts also flooded the legislature, she said.
“Those who weren’t politically sexy, really got cut,” including state parks, she said.
Still, she vowed to press the state parks board to reconsider.
“I’d be surprised if they won’t listen to us,” she said of the Parks Board and “shocked if we can’t get this done.”
The explanation for the sudden closure of Tonto Natural Bridge got seriously tangled in the need to make roof and structural repairs on the historic lodge. The building once had guest rooms and a busy restaurant. However, the legislature took almost all the systems maintenance money during a budget crunch five years ago. Since then, worsening leaks in the roof have caused potentially serious structural problems, assistant state parks director Jay Ziemann told Allen during the Wednesday meeting in her office.
The parks board decided to close the park and transfer staff to other critically shorthanded parks at the same time the board approved an estimated $600,000 repair of the lodge. The closure will make it easier and safer to make the building repairs, Ziemann said.
However, Allen said she would press the parks board to either postpone the repairs or fence off the building so visitors could still get into the park and hike down to the arch this summer.