Rim Country residents made an impassioned plea for help from lawmakers to reopen Tonto Natural Bridge State Park on Tuesday when 150 volunteers, hikers, town officials and business owners jammed an impromptu town hall meeting.
“This is the lynch pin to the whole area,” said Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton of the tourist drawing power of the world’s largest travertine arch.
The meeting was staged to convince Rep. Bill Konopnicki (R-Safford) and Rep. Jack Brown (D-St. Johns) to bring pressure to bear on the state parks board to reopen the park before the onset of the tourist season.
The meeting in Payson focused on the economic impact of losing the signature tourist destination in Rim Country on the brink of a crucial summer tourist season in a region struggling economically.
The angry audience members focused on the park system’s confusing statements on the reason for the closure and on statistics showing that with a recent 33 percent increase in the entrance fee to $4 per person, the park should be largely self-supporting.
The two lawmakers, who rarely make public appearances in Payson, made note of the turnout for the meeting.
“I wish we could get this many people out to vote,” said Brown.
Local resident Robert Henley complained the closure of a self-supporting site with one of the highest visitation rates among the 27 state parks makes no economic sense.
“It’s not a budget issue. It’s not saving them anything by cutting it,” said Henley.
Konopnicki said, “It’s politically motivated. It’s going to come back on them in the next round when we direct the cuts. You’re 100 percent correct, it wasn’t closed on account of the budget. We’re going to get the director in and work him over.”
Neither Konopnicki nor Brown talked about the extent of the park cuts imposed by the legislature, which amounted to about three times the operating budgets of the 27 parks. About 20 park volunteers showed up to say they would happily increase their hours to keep the park open. Volunteers have contributed a total of some 25,000 hours in recent years. But when the state shut down the park last week, the staff warned the volunteers they would be arrested if they stepped foot on park grounds after Thursday.
Bill Ensign, head of Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation, said the town could find plenty of volunteers to keep the park open through the season, even if the historic lodge was undergoing repairs.
“The lodge is not essential to the operation of that park. We can keep it open with volunteers.”