Tonto Natural Bridge State Park will reopen on weekends starting Memorial Day, thanks to an innovative partnership between Payson and the state park system.
Months of public pressure and private haggling this week resulted in an agreement between the town and the state.
The agreement will require Payson to provide up to about $4,000 to rehire seasonal rangers for holiday weekends and guarantee enough volunteers to supplemental the skeleton staff.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans noted, “it’s the beginning of a new relationship,” between the town and the park, the most widely known landmark in Rim Country, which last year drew more than 90,000 visitors.
The town council will vote on the proposed agreement at this Thursday’s regular council meeting.
The Park will open May 22-25 and stay open for each weekend through the end of June. Town officials hope the state parks board will include money to operate the park normally after that point, since the next fiscal year starts July 1.
“We needed to increase the park staff by two people each day” to cover holiday weekends, said Chief of Operations Janet Hawks. “Our seasonal staff rate of $11 per hour is what will be charged to the City of Payson. The two seasonal rangers will be added into the system in the other parks, which will allow me to release regular park staff to return to Tonto for those weekends. We will also have our regular volunteers and hopefully some new volunteers to help out this summer,” said Hawks.
The state parks board shut down the world’s largest travertine arch several months ago, in the wake of legislative raids on various state park funds that hacked $35 million from the park system’s budget — reducing operating funds to levels not seen in 20 years when the system had less than half as many parks.
The state parks board then approved the shutdown of Tonto Natural Bridge and two historic parks to allow construction crews to complete emergency repairs. State parks officials cited both the need to work on the leaky roof of the historic lodge and the need to shift park staff members elsewhere.
The roof of the historic lodge that once housed a popular restaurant and well-known inn had been leaking for years, but the state parks had virtually no maintenance budget. The leaks finally got so bad that inspectors feared structural damage — leading to the proposed repair work.
Originally, state parks officials said they didn’t think they could safely keep the park open while construction crews were working on the roof of the lodge. However, even though the park system has not yet awarded the bid for construction, discussions with the competing contractors indicated they could work around weekend park visitors.
That left intact what had always been the chief reason for the park closure — a critical shortage of rangers in the cash-strapped system. A hiring freeze and the decision to lay off about all the seasonal staff forced a 26-percent staff reduction on the 28-park system. As a result, the system transferred rangers from the shuttered Tonto Natural Bridge to other parks struggling to operate with skeleton crews.
Rim Country leaders reacted with anger and indignation to the park closure. About 100 people crowded into a local meeting to demand that the region’s state lawmakers get the park reopened. Park advocates made repeated appearances before the state parks board. And Rim Country officials like Evans and Rim County Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton met repeatedly with state lawmakers and state parks staff members.
All of the pressure and negotiation resulted in a rare agreement between a town and the state parks system to support the operations of a local state park.
“I would be remiss in not complimenting state parks on the job they’d done working with us,” said Evans.
Tonto Natural Bridge draws visitors internationally and remains one of the attractions people ask about most often when they stop in to the chamber of commerce visitor’s center in Payson. One study by researchers from Northern Arizona University put the economic impact of the park on the increasingly tourist-dependent Rim Country economy at more than $26 million every summer.
Mayor Evans said the town has developed an aggressive schedule of special events, and hopes to promote a combination of events and a chance to visit the reopened natural wonder in its advertising and marketing strategy this summer.
“We will certainly take advantage” of the buzz generated by the reopening of the bridge.
Evans noted that the town and the parks system had to work out the complicated details as to how the town could provide the money to pay the additional rangers needed to keep the park open during the busy summer weekends.
For one thing, the town was wary of simply providing the money — for fear the legislature would also take any donated money.
However, the just-concluded agreement would require the town to come up with the extra money for ranger salaries only as needed.
Stanton, at the chamber of commerce, will not be recruiting additional volunteers.
Evans said that in the end, the negotiations created a new partnership between the town and the park, and that linking the park to the town in the public mind would boost tourism.
“As with most obstacles, you can choose to let it prevent you from moving forward — or use it as a stepping stone. We perceived it as a stepping stone that will help build this new relationship with state parks.”