The Arizona State Parks Board on Friday will have to choke down yet another round of budget cuts, but Rim Country officials hope that when the budget blood stops gushing Tonto Natural Bridge State Park will remain open at least five days a week through the fall and winter.
Payson recently concluded an agreement with the state parks system to continue providing money for an extra ranger to keep the world’s largest travertine arch open, even if other parks shut down.
Moreover, the Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park last week officially affiliated with the Arizona State Parks Foundation.
The Friends organization will raise money, provide volunteers and drum up support for one of the best-known Rim Country landmarks.
The newly formed Friends group hopes to recruit volunteers to help keep the short-staffed park open for as many hours as possible, but so far the park has continued to rely on the existing core of volunteers.
Finally, construction crews this month will finish repairing the roof and shoring up the foundation of the historic lodge at the park, fixing leaks that have bedeviled the lodge for several years in a state park system starved for cash to make even basic repairs.
Tonto Natural Bridge normally attracts more than 90,000 visitors who pump more than $3.6 million annually into the local economy. Visitation declined this summer, since the park remained open only two days a week through the peak season.
The arrival of the Rim Country cavalry in the form of Payson’s operating agreement and the Friends’ support may have come just in time to spare Tonto Natural Bridge from another round of cutbacks, caused by the legislative sinkhole into which the state parks budget has nearly disappeared.
The state parks board has been forced to approve repeated cutbacks in its budget in the past two years, as the legislature continues to sweep money out of various park funds to balance the overall state budget.
Last year, the parks board slashed the operating budget mid-year to about $26 million, which meant laying off all the seasonal rangers, reducing hours on many parks, closing parks with maintenance issues like Tonto Natural Bridge, Jerome and McFarland, suspending Heritage Fund grants and reducing overall staffing by about one-third.
The parks board approved another round of cuts to shrink the operating budget to about $21 million, but on Friday must swallow another $1.5 million in cuts, according to Ellen Bilbrey, spokesperson for the state parks system.
The parks staff has recommended another round of layoffs — about 30, half of them in the central office, said Bilbrey. Those cuts come on top of about 60 layoffs imposed to get the operating budget down to $21 million.
Park administrators also hope the parks board will give them a free hand to seek partnerships with cities, towns and counties to keep other parks open, despite the system’s now skeletal staffing.
Moreover, the parks board will probably not have the money to hand out some $50 million in lottery-funded Heritage Fund grants to local jurisdictions for park projects, since the legislature has already swept that fund. However, the parks board has agreed to fund several million dollars worth of Heritage Fund grants previously awarded but temporarily suspended last year.
The staff recommendation would shut down many state parks campgrounds during the slow winter visitation season, although the parks themselves could remain open to daytime visitors.
“At this point the recommendation would be for Tonto Natural Bridge to stay open five days a week, with Payson paying for one of the ranger positions,” said Bilbrey.