Payson has struck a deal to keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open through the summer and into the fall — part of a statewide movement by rural communities to save the collapsing state parks system.
The Payson Town Council last week approved a contract with the state to provide up to $24,000 to keep the world’s largest natural travertine bridge open for its normal hours all summer long.
The town hopes to raise the money with help from the Tonto Apache Tribe and Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge, which has already enrolled 40 members and plans a June 19 fund-raiser at the Sidewinders Saloon in Pine.
The park had been slated to close in June, as a result of legislative raids on the state parks budget that had threatened wholesale closures of many of the state’s 28 parks —which include a mix of historical and recreational sites.
On May 19, the State Parks Board approved five other agreements to keep local sites open with the help of towns and volunteer groups. Those agreements and donations staved off threatened closure of a host of parks. Donors have come forward to save Tonto Natural Bridge, Red Rock State Park, Tubac Presidio, Alamo Lake, Riordan Mansion in Flagstaff, Picacho Peak near Casa Grande, Oracle State Park near Tucson and Yuma Territorial Prison State Park.
The State Parks Board announced a bundle of such agreements and contributions, which included an $8,000 contribution from Friends of Tonto Bridge. Other contributions totaled some $400,000.
“It is a miracle these communities have raised funds to keep these parks open so far this year. The real key now is that we need every Arizonan to use their state parks system as often as possible. We are focusing on keeping state parks open because the fiscal impact and loss of jobs from closed parks would be devastating to these rural towns,” said State Parks Director Renee Bahl.
Payson supporters hope to once more build up visits this year, with the help of volunteers, promotional efforts and events.
On the bright side, the state has now finished an overhaul of the historic lodge, which once housed a restaurant. Years ago when in private hands, the lodge and a restaurant there were favorites of Rim Country visitors — along with a campground, swimming pool, rental cabins and a swimming hole down on the creek.
The state improved access to the site with a paved road down the steep canyon, but shut down most of the additional uses.
Town officials hope that Payson’s partnership with state parks in keeping the park open and the reopening of the historic building will provide a place to host many gatherings — including weddings, special events, barbecues and conferences.