In what is being called a sad day in state history, the Arizona State Parks Board voted Friday to shut down 13 parks in a series of phased closures starting Feb. 22.
Tonto Natural Bridge is among those slated to close later this year if Payson cannot negotiate a way to take over operation and funding of the world’s largest travertine arch.
“It is a sad, dark day,” said State Parks Executive Director Renee Bahl, who spoke to the Roundup after a five-hour parks board meeting Friday. “This is a terrible message to send to the residents of the Grand Canyon state.”
Bahl said the parks board had no other option but to close the parks after a legislative special session swept $8.6 million from six state parks funds.
Ellen Bilbrey, chief public information officer with the state parks, said 100 people attended Friday’s meeting at the Phoenix Zoo, most choosing to address the board for an allotted three minutes.
Despite the public outcry, the board made the cuts.
Tonto Natural Bridge will close June 3 if the Town of Payson does not reach an agreement with the parks board.
Mayor Kenny Evans said town officials have been working for months with the state parks staff on ways to keep the arch and its refurbished historic lodge open after the legislature took a million-dollar lease payment due this year.
If the board cannot figure out a way to make the $450,000 lease payment in June and another $500,000 payment a year later, the park will have to close indefinitely.
Despite news of the heavy cuts around the state, the town is still “working hard to figure out a way to refinance that mortgage payment with a public-private partnership,” Evans said. “We are determined to continue negotiations.”
“Payson has been very supportive of keeping it open,” Bahl said of the bridge. “We are definitely working towards a solution.”
A possible solution includes the town operating the park for a three- to five-year period with volunteers and town employees. Evans believes the town can run the park at a fraction of the cost.
Camp Verde is another town fighting to keep its local state park open.
On Friday, Camp Verde officials said closing Fort Verde State Historic Park is not an option, and therefore they are willing to fund its operation long term, Bahl said.
The details of that deal are not set, she added.
With the majority of state parks slated to close, remarkably, nine state parks escaped the cutting block.
The board decided to keep these parks open because they put revenue back into the parks’ operating revolving funds, not because they are more valuable or beautiful, Bahl said.