Parks Board Slashes Staff, Tonto Bridge Stays Open

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The Arizona State Parks Board has approved another round of layoffs and cuts that will take the operating budget for the 29-park system down to $19 million, a 27 percent decrease from the already severely reduced total for 2009.

The latest cuts will force the park system to lay off another 30 employees, limit park hours of operation, close some parks in the off season, shift many parks to five-day-a-week operations and raise entrance fees by 25 to 100 percent at most parks.

Fortunately for Rim Country, the budget for this year will keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open on weekends for the rest of this month and then expand operations to five days a week in October when crews finish repair work on the historic lodge.

Tonto Natural Bridge normally draws about 90,000 visitors annually, who contribute about $3.6 million to the local economy. The park has been operating only on weekends all summer as a result of the crisis caused when the legislature raided various park funds to balance the state budget. The legislature not only swept up various funds intended to improve and expand parks, it also gobbled up the gate fees used to cover operating expenses.

However, Rim Country officials and community leaders rallied to keep Tonto Natural Bridge open, arguing that it remains the best-known local attraction for out-of-area visitors.

As a result of the cuts, not only will the parks receive no net general fund money, but park visitors will in effect be subsidizing the overall state budget.

“Now all of the funds to operate the state parks department must be earned through gate fees or from the remaining conservation funds,” said Executive Director Renee Bahl.

She noted that the parks will focus on keeping visitor numbers as high as possible. Normally, state parks get about 2.3 million visitors annually, who have an estimated $266-million annual economic impact — most of it concentrated in economically hard-pressed rural communities, said Bahl.

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