Closing Tonto Natural Bridge A Blow To Rim

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The state budget is shaping up like one of those monster movies — as our heroes vanish into the darkness one by one.

The impact of the Legislature’s interminable crazy budget routine appears little short of devastating — especially on the state parks system.

State parks has earned a terrible distinction in all this idiocy as perhaps the most ghoulishly, mercilessly dismembered agency in the whole sorry tale.

So a year of squabbling, denial and irresponsibility on the part of the Legislature has come to this: The state parks board on Friday will likely approve a plan for the gradual shutdown of a system decades in the building.

Among the victims — Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, a geologic wonder and an economic generator for Rim Country’s suffering, tourist-oriented economy.

We have in this space applauded Payson’s persistent, creative efforts to partner with the state to keep the world’s largest travertine arch open to the public. Payson has played the role of one of those likeable, plucky characters you pray will survive to the end of the movie.

However, like a monster movie that takes a terrible turn just when our heroes have seemingly escaped the pit, Payson’s effort appears ready to flounder.

For starters, a renewed swoon in sales taxes and other revenue has created a $2.6 million budget shortfall for the town — leaving it with precious little to support Tonto Bridge. The council on Wednesday will likely stage a little budget monster flick of its own. The closing of the Tonto Natural Bridge will reduce visitors and therefore sales tax income for the town.

Moreover, a year of part-time hours and bewildering headlines has taken its toll on visitation. Last year, 65,000 people toured Tonto Natural Bridge — down from a peak of 97,000 several years ago. As a result, the park used to nearly break even but now runs a deficit of $124,000 annually — not counting the annual $450,000 lease payment.

It appears that the Legislature has nearly completed the dismemberment of this marvelous collection of treasures, which has done so much to bolster rural economies. It defies imagination that the Legislature should hack to death a jobs-generating parks system in the midst of a devastating recession, for what amounts to the silver fillings in their teeth from a state budget point of view.

So now the parks staff has recommended the board between now and June shut down all but eight of the 28 state parks — including Tonto Natural Bridge. Only a handful of lakes scattered throughout the state and campgrounds along the Colorado River will remain open — plus Kartchner Caverns.

What short-sighted foolishness — especially because the Legislature didn’t just take away general fund support but also raided taxpayer established parks funds, private donations and gate fees. That amounts to pocket change in the state budget, but it promises to destroy a wonderful resources that generate some $126 million in economic activity for hard-pressed rural areas like Rim Country.

We have little hope the Legislature will finally, after all this time, behave rationally and responsibly.

So we hope that Gila County will join with Payson in finding a way to keep Tonto Natural Bridge open and that the state parks board will cooperate by providing the flexibility in running the park necessary to make it work on the $175,000 in entrance fees.

Perhaps the state can ease its previous insistence on the use of state park rangers and staffing standards that resulted in nearly $300,000 in operating costs at the park last year. We suspect that the existing, dedicated cadre of volunteers could keep the park open with a minimum of paid staff — at least through the vital summer months and into the fall.

But clearly Payson needs help, given its worsening financial condition — broken its leg maybe in the darkness as the monster comes shuffling along behind.

Everyone knows that lazy, greedy, self-centered characters never escape the monster.

Time for the heroes to step forward.

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