The Arizona State Parks Board will meet on Tuesday at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, to highlight one bright spot in a bleak picture.
The state parks board has invited Payson Mayor Kenny Evans to talk about the state’s groundbreaking agreement with the town to keep the best-known tourist attraction in Rim Country open normal hours this year — but the board will then have to turn to the heartrending task of shutting down or cutting hours for many parks without a local savior.
“We are extremely proud of our partnership with you,” said State Parks Director Renee Bahl in an e-mail to Evans. “Payson became the template of partnership agreements to keep parks open around the state thanks to your forward thinking.”
The meeting will run from about 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday and again from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesday.
Payson promised to provide up to $30,000 to keep the park open this season, after last year’s closures and limited hours cut visitation from about 90,000 to about 60,000.
Supporters also formed Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge, to raise money and enlist volunteers to work at the world’s largest natural travertine arch.
Before the drop-off in visitation, a study suggested that out-of-the-area visitors to the bridge pump about $3.6 million into the local economy. The cavernous tunnel dissolved in a towering travertine cliff by Pine Creek is the region’s best-known wonder, especially for out-of-state and international visitors.
The Friends organization is holding several fund-raisers, to cover the town’s pledge of operating funds. The bridge has an annual income of about $160,000, mostly for rangers’ and other workers’ salaries and was was operating at nearly break-even until the steep drop in visitors last year.
The town has also signaled an interest in a long-term contract to take over operation of the park with the help of a private concessionaire if the state parks’ budget situation continues to worsen.
Payson’s effort to work out an agreement to keep the park open in the face of some $9 million in budget cuts and fund sweeps imposed by the Legislature has provided a model for other rescue efforts.
The legislative budget cuts have not only emptied various special funds like the Heritage Fund, but diverted gate fees to other state departments. Despite deep staff cuts, closures and reductions in hours, the system faces a $3 million shortage for fiscal year 2011, which could force additional closures.
So far, the state has struck up partnerships with local governments to keep open Tonto Natural Bridge, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Fort Verde, Lyman Lake, Riordan Mansion in Flagstaff, Tombstone Courthouse, Tubac Presidio, Yuma Prison and Yuma Quartermaster Depot.
Parks already closed to the public either for lack of operating funds or because of structural problems include Homolovi Ruins, Jerome, McFarland, Oracle and San Rafael State Natural Area.
On Tuesday, the state parks board will face a decision on whether to close other parks that lack a partner and can’t pay their own way from gate fees. Parks slated for closure include Alamo Lake, Lost Dutchman, Picacho Peak, Red Rock and Roper Lake.
That leaves only nine other parks in the 28-site system that can afford to keep operating from their remaining gate fees. Most of those are recreational parks, many along the Colorado River. The relatively secure parks now include Buckskin Mountain, Catalina, Cattail Cove, Dead Horse Ranch, Fool Hollow Lake, Kartchner Caverns, Lake Havasu, Patagonia and Slide Rock.
The board will also consider a price increase for tours of Kartchner Caverns State Park, a spectacular limestone cavern that will potentially charge adults $22.95 per visit. The fee increase would bring in $150,000 to $200,000 more, despite an anticipated 25 percent drop in visitors.
The board will also consider new proposals to save some of the parks slated for closure in June. That includes an offer of $50,000 from Yavapai County to keep Red Rock State Park open near Sedona, $20,000 from Eloy to keep Picacho Peak open, $30,000 from La Paz County to keep Alamo Lake open, and $24,000 from Friends of Lost Dutchman to keep that popular park open in the Superstitions.