The closure of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park this week provoked a flurry of public outrage, angry volunteers, muddled explanations, contentious meetings, collapsing budgets and blame-shifting lawmakers.
By the time the rhetorical smoke had cleared, all three of the Rim Country’s legislative representatives had sworn to push for the reopening of the park as soon as possible.
However, they largely sidestepping blame for the draconian budget cuts that forced the state parks board to plan closure of more than half of its 27 parks — including the Rim Country park showcasing the world’s largest travertine arch.
The action this week took place first at an overflow public meeting in Payson on Tuesday attended by representatives Jack Brown and Bill Konopnicki, followed by a vigorous arm-twisting session in the Phoenix office of Sen. Sylvia Allen on Wednesday.
The state parks board had unexpectedly closed Tonto Natural Bridge to shift staff to other parks while contractors do roof and structural repairs on an historic building that’s been leaking badly for so long that it has suffered structural damage.
The three state lawmakers vowed to get the park open before summer either by pressuring the parks board to fence off the crumbling lodge during the $600,000 construction project or by postponing repairs. They each denounced the parks board’s decision as “political,” but none directly addressed the impact of the legislature’s decision to take $34 million from various parks’ funds — nearly $30 million more than the general fund contributes to park operations.
Instead, the lawmakers criticized the parks board for “playing politics” by closing a popular, nearly self-supporting park like Tonto Natural Bridge, which draws about 90,000 visitors annually and contributes an estimated $3.5 million to the local economy.
“We have to get this park opened back up,” said Rep. Konopnicki (R-Safford) at the town meeting held at the Best Western Payson Inn, which drew an overflow crowd of 150.
“I just can’t understand what the parks board was thinking ... It’s politically motivated to make people yell at the legislature,” he said.
He urged the audience to support House Bill 2088, which would let the state parks borrow about $20 million from a fund established by voters to buy state-owned land to provide open space around urban areas.
Some $63 million has accumulated in the fund. A bill that would borrow money for various state agencies got out of committee with Republican support, but some legislative Democrats question the legality of diverting tax-payer designated funds.
The state parks sent no representative to the Tuesday meeting, which turned into a long laceration of the park board’s decision to close the park for perhaps the six months it will take to repair the lodge.
The state parks has $600,000 to do those repairs left over from previous years, which the legislature overlooked in sweeping $34 million from assorted parks funds — including all the maintenance money in this year’s budget.
The mid-year cuts came so unexpectedly that the state parks had to cancel some $6.5 million worth of contracts for work already awarded.
The $34 million budget sweeps included a reduction in the general fund contribution to the parks from about $8 million to about $4 million. The cuts forced a 21 percent staff reduction.
The parks board plans to close 14 of the 27 parks, starting with the three parks with serious maintenance problems.
Assistant State Parks Director Jay Ziemann explained in the Wednesday meeting that the repair work alone would not necessarily have forced the closure of the bridge, since most people who visit just want to hike down to view the soaring travertine arch carved out by Pine Creek.
However, the effects of the layoff of all seasonal and probationary employees coupled with the effects of an 18-month-old hiring freeze has cut parks staff statewide by 21 percent and left parks with 30 percent of its authorized positions vacant. The parks board reasoned that shutting down the Tonto Natural Bridge could both speed up the lodge repair work and shift staff to other parks in danger of closing.
The 150 people crowded into the meeting at the Best Western hotel conference room Tuesday were focused on the potentially devastating economic impact of losing the Rim Country’s signature attraction at the outset of a critical summer travel season. Nearly all of them lambasted the parks board and pleaded with the lawmakers to force the immediate reopening of a park.
Most said the decision makes no sense because Tonto Natural Bridge now covers almost all its own costs, thanks to a recent fee increase to $4 — which also helps cover the state’s mortgage payments on the land.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans and Rim Country Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton journeyed to the state senate offices in Phoenix Wednesday to urge Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake) to pressure the parks to reopen the park quickly.
“That state park is an incredible part of our economic machine,” said Evans in that meeting, noting that in the three days after the park closed at least 50 people came by the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce offices asking how to get to the bridge.
Evans said volunteers have contributed 25,000 hours in recent years to support park operations and several Boy Scout troops have spent 2,500 hours building a new trail to the arch.
“This seems to have been an arbitrary decision. So we want to know what we can do to make this reopening happen. We understand there’s a budget crunch. If we need to marshal the volunteers, we’ll get them. Just tell us how we can get this park open.”
All three lawmakers have now gone on the record with promises to push hard to reopen the park, while noting the state budget crisis will make that tough.
Allen agreed 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. The legislature took almost all the park system’s maintenance money during a budget crunch five years ago.
Since then, worsening leaks in the roof have caused potentially serious structural problems, Ziemann told Allen during the Wednesday meeting in her office.
“We haven’t had a maintenance budget in five years,” he said.
State parks has a master plan calling for restoring the guest rooms and restaurant in the historic, three-story lodge and building the additional rooms and cottages necessary to make that operation viable. But repeated legislative raids on the parks’ maintenance and building funds have left it without enough money to do critical repairs or even staff the existing parks.
“Our budget is back to where it was in 1971, when we had 10 parks,” he said.
In fact, state park visitors are now effectively subsidizing the general fund as a result of the most recent sweep of dedicated funds for things like the lottery-based Heritage Fund and money that comes from a tax on gas bought for boats.
He said absent the lack of manpower to staff all the parks, the Tonto Natural Bridge could remain open during those repairs.
However, the parks board decided to close the three parks with major maintenance problems immediately, to redeploy staff and speed repairs.
The parks board probably also figured they’d better spend the leftover scraps of maintenance money from previous years before the legislature scooped up the spare change to deal with the $3 billion to $4 billion projected deficit already looming over next year’s budget, he acknowledged.
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.
Ziemann said he would go back to the parks board to discuss reopening the natural bridge during the lodge repair work. He said the parks board remained open to suggestions and would consider whether the park could reopen on some basis with a greater reliance on volunteers. However, park rules bar volunteers from handling money and law enforcement tasks, which means that two or three rangers would still have to be assigned to the park.
The current closure calls for one ranger to remain on duty just to safeguard the site.
But if the parks board does shift staff back to Tonto Natural Bridge, it will cause a problem elsewhere.
“And then I’ll be back in another senator’s office explaining why we had to close the park in their district,” said Ziemann.