Rim Country advocates for the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park have rallied around an initiative that would prevent the Legislature from diverting fees collected at state parks into the general fund.
The Citizens to Save Arizona’s Natural Resources hopes to avert the threatened closure of state parks, which have not only lost almost all state and federal subsidies but have also lost money from admissions fees and taxpayer-earmarked funds.
Recent polls suggest that more than 80 percent of Arizonans support the initiative, which has so far gathered 70,000 of the 170,000 signatures it needs by early July to qualify for the November ballot.
“We are confident voters will overwhelmingly pass the initiative this November but our true battle is qualifying for the ballot,” said Beth Woodin, campaign spokesperson and longtime southern Arizona natural resources civic leader. “This initiative is critical to our state and I strongly encourage all Arizonans to sign the petition and visit aznaturalresources.org to make a donation to the campaign to help us hire professional signature gatherers to get us over the finish line.”
Polling shows only 23 percent of Arizonans believe funding for state parks is sufficient.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park remains the best-known tourist draw in Rim Country, according to Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce manager John Stanton.
“This is a legacy campaign for all generations in Arizona’s centennial year.”
Citizens to Save Arizona’s Natural Resources
Visits to the state park peaked at about 95,000 annually until state budget cuts forced a series of closures and a limit on the hours of operation. Payson, Star Valley and the Tonto Apache Tribe made contributions and volunteers formed Friends of Tonto Bridge to restore full hours of operations, but by then visitation had slipped to about 65,000 annually.
An early study found that out-of-area visitors to the soaring travertine bridge contributed more than $26 million annually to the local economy.
Backers of the initiative say such state parks remain critical to hard-pressed rural economies, where the economic recovery lags far behind the Valley.
“California is currently planning on closing 70 parks across the state and we cannot allow massive park closures to happen in Arizona,” added Woodin. “Northern Arizona has several of our state’s jewels in the park system including Tonto Natural Bridge, which Payson has worked so hard and effectively to preserve.”
The ballot initiative provides that all Arizona school children, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, receive free admission to Arizona state parks when part of a school trip. In one poll, 90 percent of likely Arizona voters support this provision of the ballot measure.
The initiative would also protect the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s lottery-based Heritage Fund allocation from legislative fund sweeps and re-establishes the Arizona State Parks annual $10 million lottery-based Heritage grant program for public and non-profit organizations. Annually, Arizonans who register their non-commercial motor vehicles will have the option of making a voluntary $14 per vehicle donation to help fund this measure.
Woodin added, “We need to act now. This is a legacy campaign for all generations in Arizona’s centennial year. Help Arizona, its children, and its natural resources now.”