Parks board still dreams of the future

[Source: Payson Roundup, Peter Aleshire, 7-20-2010] – Get through the beating. But don’t stop dreaming.

That could serve as the motto of the Arizona State Parks system, reflected recently at a rare retreat and strategy session that brought the board to one of its most endangered treasures: Tonto Natural Bridge. The state parks board finds itself in the position of a scrawny kid getting punched out by a bully after his lunch money. The system is bruised, bloody and curled into the fetal position — but still making plans for college.

The world’s largest natural travertine arch formed an apt setting for the discussion, since the park system’s partnership with Payson to keep the Rim Country’s best known tourist attraction open served as a model to save other parks. As a result of the last-minute rescues by Payson and other counties and towns, the state parks board approved agreements to keep most of the sites in the 28-park system open — despite drastic reductions in its budget. [to read the full article click here].

Lake Havasu City proposes taking over popular state park

[Mohave Daily News, Christine Harvey, Cronkite News Service, 2-16-2010] — With Arizona State Parks facing an uncertain future due to budget cuts, Lake Havasu City is proposing taking over operations of a popular facility there.  Unlike some other communities that have partnered to keep state parks open, however, Lake Havasu City wants a long-term lease to operate Lake Havasu State Park, home of the community’s busiest and largest boating ramp.

“Help us help you,” Mayor Mark Nexsen told the House Natural Resources and Rural Affairs Committee on Monday.  “The state cannot afford to keep our park open, and we cannot afford to have it close.”  In response to budget cuts, the Arizona State Parks Board plans to close 13 parks around the state while keeping nine open.  For now, Lake Havasu State Park is slated to remain open.

Rep. Doris Goodale, R-Kingman, who is sponsoring a bill to make the lease possible, said that could change. Her bill, HB 2786, would require Arizona State Parks Board to enter into a 25-year lease with Lake Havasu City, with the community paying the state $50,000 per year.  With Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford, the committee’s chairman, not in attendance, the panel put off voting on the proposal until next week.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Rim Country legislators vow to reopen Tonto state park

Jack A. Brown
State Rep. Jack Brown

[Source: Pete Aleshire, Payson Roundup] — The closure of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park this week provoked a flurry of public outrage, angry volunteers, muddled explanations, contentious meetings, collapsing budgets and blame-shifting lawmakers.  By the time the rhetorical smoke had cleared, all three of the Rim Country’s legislative representatives had sworn to push for the reopening of the park as soon as possible. However, they largely sidestepping blame for the draconian budget cuts that forced the state parks board to plan closure of more than half of its 27 parks — including the Rim Country park showcasing the world’s largest travertine arch.

Sylvia Allen
State Senator Sylvia Allen

The action this week took place first at an overflow public meeting in Payson on Tuesday attended by representatives Jack Brown and Bill Konopnicki, followed by a vigorous arm-twisting session in the Phoenix office of Sen. Sylvia Allen on Wednesday.  The state parks board had unexpectedly closed Tonto Natural Bridge to shift staff to other parks while contractors do roof and structural repairs on an historic building that’s been leaking badly for so long that it has suffered structural damage. The three state lawmakers vowed to get the park open before summer either by pressuring the parks board to fence off the crumbling lodge during the $600,000 construction project or by postponing repairs.  They each denounced the parks board’s decision as “political,” but none directly addressed the impact of the legislature’s decision to take $34 million from various parks’ funds — nearly $30 million more than the general fund contributes to park operations.

Bill Konopnicki
State Rep. Bill Konopnicki

Instead, the lawmakers criticized the parks board for “playing politics” by closing a popular, nearly self-supporting park like Tonto Natural Bridge, which draws about 90,000 visitors annually and contributes an estimated $3.5 million to the local economy.  “We have to get this park opened back up,” said Rep. Konopnicki (R-Safford) at the town meeting held at the Best Western Payson Inn, which drew an overflow crowd of 150. “I just can’t understand what the parks board was thinking … It’s politically motivated to make people yell at the legislature,” he said. [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

State legislators agree to Tonto bridge town hall meeting

The closed signs went up Thursday afternoon at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park (Photo: Tom Brossart, Roundup).

[Source: Pete Aleshire, Payson Roundup] — As rangers on Thursday bolted an orange square blaring “closed” on the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park sign, Rim Country leaders rallied support to force a reversal of the decision.  A steady stream of people and reporters made their way to the park on Thursday, anxious to have a last look before the indefinite closure imposed mostly to shift staff members to other parks.

State representatives Bill Konopnicki and Jack Brown both agreed to attend a Town Hall meeting next Tuesday at 2 p.m. at the Best Western Conference room on Highway 87 across from the Swiss Village.  In addition, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton, and other community leaders have an appointment to meet with state Sen. Sylvia Allen on Wednesday in Phoenix.  “This place does not have to close,” said an indignant Stanton at the entrance to the park on Thursday.  “We’re one of 11 communities being held hostage because the state parks board needs the money.”

After the legislature swept $35 million from various state park funds, the state parks board voted to close indefinitely 11 of the 27 parks in the system.  Now, state park officials hope the legislature will let them borrow money from the $68 million that has accumulated in the voter-established Land Conservation Fund.  House Bill 2088 would allow state parks and other agencies to borrow $20 million from that fund and repay in 2012.  Voters originally established the fund to buy state trust land for use as open space around cities.

Stanton said community leaders hope to convince the lawmakers to restore enough money to the state parks budget to keep Tonto Natural Bridge and other parks open.  The park draws nearly 100,000 visitors annually and park managers say January’s increase in entrance fees from $3 to $4 would have made the park entirely self-supporting this year.

Economic impact studies show that the park generates $3.5 million in revenue for local, tourism-dependent business.  Equally important, the park gives Rim County a national and international identity, as evidenced by how many people every day pull into the chamber’s visitor information office to find out how to get to the bridge.  “Our message (to the legislators) is if you want to have enough people left up here to re-elect you… don’t close this park,” said Stanton.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]