The Arizona State Parks Board this week voted to use almost its last remaining reserves to make a final million-dollar balloon payment to buy Tonto Natural Bridge.
The board acted after spending two days in the historic lodge at the world’s largest natural travertine arch and praised Payson’s efforts to save the vital state park.
The state’s agreement with Payson served as the model for partnerships that have averted the closure this year of most of the parks in the system.
“Payson is the model,” said State Parks Director Renee Bahl, “It was really outside-the-box thinking. Payson, more than any community, saw the relationship between keeping the park open and the local economy.”
Visitors to state parks contribute more than $250 million annually to rural economies, including $3.6 million in spending spurred by Tonto Natural Bridge, according to a recent Northern Arizona University study. But the Legislature has swept millions from the state parks budget in the past year, forcing reduced hours and closures.
Earlier this year, the Legislature’s raid on state parks funds and gate fees had prompted the board to plan for the closure of about two-thirds of the sites in the 28-park system, for lack of staffing and operating funds.
However, the board struck a deal with Payson to keep the Rim Country’s best-known tourist attraction open through the summer, after Payson promised to contribute up to $24,000 in operating funds.
That served as the model for more than a dozen other such agreements that raised more than $500,000 from cities, counties and private groups to keep parks open.
The parks board met on Tuesday and Wednesday at Tonto Natural Bridge, with board members spending the night in the newly reinforced, historic lodge. At night, they wandered down to the soaring, cavernous arch formed when Pine Creek dissolved a vast tunnel through a great dam of travertine deposited by springs gushing from layers of ancient, sea bottom limestone.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the board’s decision to use its last million dollars in lottery-based Heritage funds to make two final balloon payments will save the park and give the town and the parks board new options for keeping it open.
“I don’t think the citizens of Payson can understand what a tough decision that was for the board — although it was the right decision. They could have put a lot of band-aids on a lot of other parks for the money they just committed. Their budget challenges are immense and we’re not out of the woods yet — but we have an ally now that appreciates the park, not just with their heads, but with their hearts,” Evans said.
The board members stayed in the century-old lodge, which recently underwent emergency repairs to shore up the structure and fix the leaking roof. Before the night in the lodge, the tentative budget included a $400,000 payment this year. But on Wednesday, the board to decided to go ahead and make next year’s final $600,000 payment as well.
The money will come from the state parks budget’s final stash of Heritage Fund money. The Legislature this year gobbled up the $10-million annual allotment of Heritage Fund money the state parks board had for years used to fund projects in the parks and in the communities they serve.
Evans said he felt the board’s sojourn in the park was essential.
“You see a deer bounding across that green meadow — you can’t put a price tag on that,” said Evans, who with other Rim Country officials attended the meeting and joined the parks board for dinner on the expansive lawn of the lodge. “No number of trips or brochures we could have printed up here and taken to the Valley would have impressed them like having that experience.”
The two-day meeting delivered mostly good news for Tonto Natural Bridge, which has skittered along the edge of budgetary extinction for the past year.
Payson has pledged as much as $24,000 to keep the park running through September, with help from the Tonto Apache Tribe, the newly formed Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge and others.
Irregular hours and bad publicity last year drove visitation down sharply from highs of about 93,000 per year to just over 60,000 last year.
Visitation has rebounded sharply in the past two months, with a 24-percent increase in May over two years ago — although the park has been open just five days a week instead of seven. Moreover, staff cuts have sharply reduced operating costs — as will making the final balloon payments.
Advocates hope that a rise in gate fees, increased visitation and decreased costs will put the park in the black by September and generate the money needed to stay open through the fall and winter. The Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge is also raising money, holding fund-raisers and enlisting volunteers, which remain in short supply.
The parks board this week approved a parade of agreements with counties, towns and support groups to keep other parks in the system open.
The board is now considering partnerships that would essentially turn existing parks over to other groups or even private concessionaires. Many of those arrangements have the distinct advantage that the Legislature can’t sweep the operating funds committed by outside partners or gate receipts and proceeds from gift shops written into such agreements.
Payson officials have said they would be willing to take over the park and hire a private concessionaire to run it if necessary to keep it from closing. Deals struck with other towns like Yuma have laid the legal groundwork for such a full takeover of the park — especially when the state parks board has made the final balloon payments.
But Evans said he hopes the state parks system will survive the budgetary storms and emerge with stronger partners and a plan to make the parks more self-supporting.
He said the two-day retreat and the time spent standing beneath the vast arch in the moonlight, listening to the drips of spring water on cobalt-blue travertine pools, will leave its impression on the state parks board.
“There’s nothing like a nighttime stroll down to the bottom of Tonto Natural Bridge to brin