The Arizona State Parks Board on Friday faces a bleak recommendation to begin shutting down most state parks – including Tonto Natural Bridge — between now and June.
The recommendations would leave open only nine of the 28 parks in the system, based mostly on which parks make money.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park would shut down in June at the start of the busy tourist season, if the state parks board accepts staff recommendation.
Only the big money-making recreation parks would stay open, including four on the Colorado River, Kartchner Caverns, Dead Horse Ranch in the Verde Valley, Slide Rock in Sedona, Fool Hollow Lake and Patagonia Lake.
Even that would depend on the system coming up with $3 million in additional, short-term cash, according to the staff report.
The phased shutdown of most of the system is an attempt to cope with a budget deficit as cavernous as the world’s largest travertine arch.
The move comes just as renewed financial crisis in Payson has overshadowed the town’s effort to strike a deal with state parks that would let the town take over Tonto Bridge.
Worse yet, a plunge in visitation has made the world’s largest natural travertine arch a big money loser in a drowning state parks system.
At its peak, the soaring natural arch of travertine drew 97,000 visitors, who pumped $3.6 million into the local economy. At that level, the park nearly broke even and Payson officials at one point promised to step in and run the park on the gate fees should the state park system falter.
However, in 2009 visitation plunged to some 65,000 and the operating loss rose to $124,000, according to figures released last week by state parks.
Read Tuesday's Roundup for more details.