About 200 Rim Country residents on Saturday demonstrated that they’re not just fair weather friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.
And we mean that quite literally — since a monsoon storm nearly set the umbrellas and awnings to flight.
The Friends of the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park staged the fund-raiser to not only raise enough money to put up signs directing people to Rim Country’s best known tourist attraction, they also wanted to renew the longstanding links between the world’s largest travertine arch and this community.
Everyone had a great time, chit-chatting, listening to music, sampling the wine and food, appreciating the restoration of the leaky, historic lodge and savoring the open expanses of grass, blackberry bushes and fruit trees. Between the sunset and the monsoon, hardly anyone even got a chance to stroll down to the bottom of Pine Canyon and appreciate the soaring natural arch of dissolved travertine that forms the heart and soul of the park.
We hope the celebration marked a new turn in the long, intimate relationship between Rim Country and the Natural Bridge, the location of which remains the top question asked by folks who stop in at the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce visitors center in Payson.
The homestead at the Natural Bridge played a colorful role in the early history of Rim Country and through the years remained a local treasure. People stayed in the cozy rooms, picked fruit in the orchard, splashed about in the creek, camped, rented cabins, enjoyed the restaurant and celebrated marriages and reunions there. The Payson High School football team even held spring training on the grounds.
Initially, the establishment of the state park cut off many of those relationships. The state park system made some big improvements, paving the road to the park, restoring the historic lodge, making trails to the arch safer and protecting a precious resource. But the irresponsible and capricious actions of the Legislature since the onset of the recession three years ago have forced the park to cut hours and staffing, resulting in a dismaying drop in visitation.
So Payson, Star Valley, the Tonto Apache Tribe and a corps of volunteers and supporters rallied behind the park. Donations have restored full operating hours, volunteers have replaced dwindling staff, donations have financed needed improvements. The effort continues and this community’s support for the park has proved an inspiration for other communities — whose support prevented the collapse of the state park system after the Legislature raided even gate fees.
We hope that the state parks will remember who their friends were when the going got tough — and that rangers and administrators will build on the great good will and support in this community. Perhaps even the Forest Service will take note that this community loves the natural beauty that lured us all here — and understands that these precious places remain crucial to our economic well-being.
The residents of Rim Country stand ready to help — so don’t lock us out, ignore our input or underestimate our persistence.
Partner with us — and you’ll find friends loyal through sunny days and monsoon storms alike.