Rim Country officials hope they can win a commitment to reopen Tonto Natural Bridge State Park as early as June at an April 3 Arizona State Parks Board meeting in the Valley.
In addition, local leaders hope that a recently appointed task force studying the long-term future of the state’s battered system of 28 parks will explore creative ways to bolster the region’s best-known tourist draw. That task force will consider public-private partnerships and joint operating agreements as a way to keep parks open.
“I’m optimistic, but we’ve got to keep the pressure on them,” said Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton, following two meetings involving top state park officials, Rim Country leaders and local state lawmakers.
The State Parks Board earlier this month shut down Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, which draws more than 90,000 visitors annually who pump an estimated $3.6 million into the region’s struggling, tourist-dependent economy.
Local advocates for the Tonto Natural Bridge argued that it makes no sense to close a park that, with a recent fee increase to $4 per person, is self-supporting — thanks in part to some 25,000 hours of volunteer labor donated in the past few years.
Local officials and volunteers had suggested an agreement to provide the manpower needed to keep the park open, but state parks officials have rejected that offer.
“They wanted to keep control,” Stanton said, even if it meant keeping the park closed all summer.
However, parks officials have agreed to let volunteers back into the park to make sure the flowers don’t die and to maintain the buildings and landscaping. When the park first closed, park officials warned volunteers they would be arrested if they stepped foot on park grounds while it was closed.
“I think there were some communication problems” between local park managers and state officials. “Doesn’t seem like everybody is talking to everybody,” said Stanton.
Stanton said backers of the bridge hope that this week’s anticipated award of the bid to fix the roof on the historic lodge at the entrance to the park will make it possible to re-open the park by June. The topic of the state park systems effort to cope with $35 million in hastily imposed legislative budget cuts will likely dominate the 9 a.m., April 3 meeting in Peoria.
“We don’t have anything specific — nothing’s firm anywhere — but we want good representation at that meeting to get things fixed up so we can reopen that park,” said Stanton.
State park officials have offered shifting explanations for the closure, which comes as the parks system struggles desperately to cope with a mid-year legislative raid on assorted parks funds. The cuts put the budget back to 1971 levels, when the system had only 10 parks.
As a result, the parks board imposed a hiring freeze and laid off all part-time and seasonal workers, instantly creating a staffing crisis at virtually all of the parks.
In shutting down Tonto Natural Bridge and a small historical park in Jerome, the parks board cited the need for immediate repairs. About five years ago, the parks system virtually eliminated its maintenance budget during another budget crisis. As a result, a neglected leak in the roof now threatens the structure of the historic lodge that once operated as a restaurant and hotel.
State park officials this week will award a $600,000 contract to repair the roof and structure of the lodge. Earlier, they argued that work on the lodge alongside the steep, narrow entrance road would force the temporary closure of the park.
However, Rim Country elected officials pleaded with the park officials to fence the lodge and keep the park open — or reopen it as quickly as possible to capture the bulk of the busy, summer tourist season.
Stanton said he still can’t figure out whether it’s mostly the lodge repairs or the staffing crisis that prompted the park closure. Park officials have not committed to reopening the park if the lodge could be fenced during construction or even when the repairs are complete.
“It’s like trying to nail Jello to the wall,” said Stanton of the frustrating process of trying to force a clear answer to that crucial question.
Stanton credited both a dramatic public meeting in Payson in January and repeated trips to Phoenix by Payson leaders for keeping the plight of Tonto Natural Bridge on the political front-burner for area legislators.
He said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans repeatedly pulled together meetings involving top state officials. “We’re lucky to have someone who has a history with them — this guy has access to a lot of people. I think (state officials) were impressed by the fact our community is so intense about this,” said Stanton.
However, the state park budget crisis promises to get worse before it gets better. Projections suggest that despite the cuts in the current year, the budget deficit is still growing. In addition, a projected $3 billion shortfall for the year that starts in June could force another round of cuts, said Ellen Bilbrey, spokesperson for state parks. She said the governor’s office has told the agency to prepare three budgets for next year — with reductions ranging from 5 percent to 30 percent — all coming on top of this year’s deep cuts.
Gov. Jan Brewer activated a task force to come up with ways to save the park system from what looks like projected financial collapse.
The Sustainable State Parks Task Force will have up to 21 members and be chaired by Rich Dozer, head of a Phoenix investment company.
“Places such as Kartchner Caverns, Tonto National (sic) Bridge and Tombstone, are all cultural and recreational jewels of Arizona,” said Dozer in a press release issued by Gov. Jan Brewer’s office. “In this economy, it is a great challenge to find a sustainable method to fund their protection and enhancement.”
Tonto Natural Bridge once operated privately, with a swimming pool, cabins, restaurant and hotel — in addition to an orchard and swimming holes in the stream. The Payson High School football team often had spring training there and the restaurant was a popular getaway.
The state borrowed $3 million to buy the site, with entrance fees continuing to pay off the loan. The state improved the road winding down the steep canyon to the park, but tore out the cabins, barred swimming in the creek, shut down the restaurant, pool and hotel. The gift store now operates in the lodge, which has been mostly vacant and deteriorating for the past five years.
Still, the improved access and the public draw of the state park name substantially increased visitation, to the point that park officials say they can’t handle many more visitors on peak weekends who arrive to hike the steep trail down to the 183-foot-tall travertine bridge over Pine Creek.
The park system did a study on restoring many of those services. The study concluded that the lodge could not support itself without extra rental units. State parks has a plan to rebuild and rent those cabins, but the chronic budget crisis left no money to even repair the lodge, much less build new facilities.
However, the task force could look at ways to team up with private contractors and other government agencies to increase visitation — and profits — at many state parks.
A few of the existing parks like Kartchner Caverns and busy camping and RV parks along the Colorado River pull in the bulk of the visitors and money. Another group like Tonto Natural Bridge pull in enough visitors to cover their own operating costs. But most of the parks are small recreational or historical sites that cost much more to run than they bring in.