Agreement Keeps Tonto Natural Bridge Open This Fall

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Thanks to a deal with Payson and Star Valley, Tonto Natural Bridge State Park will remain open for the next year.

Arizona State Parks Executive Director Renée Bahl last week announced the extension of the agreement with backers of the world’s largest travertine bridge, a major tourist draw for Rim Country.

Payson pledged $20,000 to augment operations and Star Valley recently agreed to chip in $5,000. The Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park have promised to help raise money to keep the bridge open as well.

Last year when the state parks board closed Tonto Bridge, Payson worked out a deal to keep it open on weekends — in part with money donated by the Tonto Apache Tribe.

That agreement proved the model for a slew of partnerships between state parks and local towns and support groups that prevented closure of most of the parks in the system, despite legislative sweeps that have devastated the parks budget.

This year, Payson extended its agreement, which until last week only guaranteed the park would stay open through September. Last week, the state parks approved a year-round extension of the agreement, which will keep the park open five days a week until at least September 2011.

At its peak, the park attracted some 93,000 visitors annually, who injected an estimated $3.6 million into the region’s economy. Last year, with the sharply reduced hours and the rumors of closure, visitation had fallen to some 60,000. So far this year, visits have rebounded sharply — especially on weekends.

“Star Valley is one of Arizona’s newest towns with 36 square miles of incorporated land in its boundaries,” said Mayor Bill Rappaport. “Our town leaders have voted to join the effort to keep the park open. We feel it is crucial because Star Valley’s planning area is 100 square miles and we are all dependent on tourism. Those thousands of visitors are extremely important for businesses so we have set aside $5,000 in our budget this year to support the state park.”

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said, “For more than a year now we have been subsidizing the park to be sure it stays open. It is clear that our $20,000 investment will return millions to the economy and we can’t afford to lose a tourism attraction of this magnitude.”

Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge President Bill Ensign says their group has committed $10,000 which is earned by volunteers through fund-raising activities. “We are thrilled to be part of the solution to help the businesses in the surrounding towns and encourage everyone to come and enjoy the world’s largest travertine bridge, “ said Ensign. “We also welcome any new financial support that can help us keep the park open into the future,” he said.

One recent study estimated that the 2.3 million visitors to state parks generate $266 million annually, mostly in rural communities that generally remain heavily dependent on tourism.

Tonto Natural Bridge, a cavernous tunnel dissolved in a cliff of travertine remains the best-known tourist destination in Rim Country, especially among travelers from outside of Arizona. Discovered by a pioneer settler who hid from an Indian war party in the cavern, it was sold to the state after decades of operation as a private attraction, with a spring-fed pool, cabins, a pick-your-own-fruit orchard, a restaurant and a historic Inn.

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