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 recommendations.
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 outside of 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 a 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 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. All year long, the park was plagued by weekend-only hours and rumors of its closure.
Tonto Natural Bridge took in $173,000 in fees, but cost $297,000 to operate.
Those figures don’t reflect a $450,000 lease payment due in July. State Parks Public Information Officer Ellen Bilbrey said she had no idea how the system could make that lease payment, one of only several left to make to complete the purchase of the site.
Unfortunately, Payson’s plans to step in and take over running the park if the system shut down took a blow last week when faltering sales and income tax receipts opened up a projected $2.6 million shortfall. The council approved immediate two-day-a-month furloughs for town employees and will confront another $800,000 in cuts on Wednesday.
The combined plunge in visitation to the park and the drop in sales tax revenue in Payson would make it much harder for Payson to ride to the rescue, if the state parks board on Friday decides to close down all the parks that cost more to keep open than they bring in.
Some such drastic reduction seems inevitable, since the state Legislature has cut the system’s operating budget to about $7.5 million, which is nearly $2 million less than the system collects in gate fees. All told, the Legislature diverted about $8.6 million from assorted state park funds. As a result, not only will the state cut off all general fund contributions to the 28-park system, but visitors to state parks will actually be subsidizing other areas of state government.
“There’s no money, there’s just no money,” said Bilbrey.
The recommendations would group the parks into four categories, mostly based on their net revenues or losses.
Eight parks would shut down immediately — or remain closed. That includes Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Park, which would be leased to the town of Yuma to keep the park open. Payson had hoped to strike a similar deal before its own budget picture soured. The rest of the parks in that category are either natural areas or historical sites with structural programs — plus the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, which the University of Arizona would continue to operate.
A second set of parks with big operating losses would shut down on Feb. 22, including Fort Verde, Homolovi Ruins, Lyman Lake and Riordan Mansion.
A third group with smaller losses would struggle on until March 29, including Roper Lake, Tombstone Courthouse, Tubac Presidio and Yuma Territorial prison.
Tonto Natural Bridge made it into the third group and will stay open until June. along with Alamo Lake, Lost Dutchman, Picacho Peak and Red Rock.
The rest of the parks would stay open all summer, in the hopes they would bring in enough money to replenish the system’s cash reserves. Only a handful of state parks collect more in entrance fees than it costs to keep the doors open.
Kartchner Caverns makes a profit of $528,000, Slide Rock clears $236,000, Lake Havasu makes $184,000 and Catalina clears $162,000. Other parks that make a small profit include Cattail Cove on the Colorado River and Lake Alamo.
All the other parks in the system lose money. The biggest money losers include Oracle ($253,000), Lyman Lake ($212,000), Homolovi ($224,000), Red Rock ($189,000), San Rafael ($176,000), Tubac ($163,000), Roper Lake ($182,000), Picacho Peak ($166,000), Fort Verde ($171,000), McFarland ($152,000), and Tonto ($124,000).
With the shrunken visitation, Tonto reported a loss of $1.89 per visitor. Among the money-losing parks, that puts it behind Boyce Thompson, Buckskin, Dead Horse, Fool Hollow, Lost Dutchman, Patagonia Lake, and Yuma Prison — but ahead of all the others.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said negotiations with the state parks system had faltered, even before the town discovered the depth of its own financial problems.
Evans said state parks officials wanted to cut a deal that would cover all its normal operating costs and the lease payment.
“We just want to keep the doors open,” said Evans, who said the internationally known natural wonder draws visitors from far away — who often stop by the Payson visitor center to get directions to the Natural Bridge, which lies halfway between Payson and Pine.
Bilbrey said she didn’t know whether the state would be willing to let Payson operate the park and collect the gate fees for some interim period or what the state will do about the looming lease payment.
State parks officials say the latest round of state budget cuts has left them in dire straits. Reportedly, the Legislature has even taken funds donated to specific state parks by individuals, in addition to raiding various funds established by voters — like Heritage Fund money generated by the lottery.
The 2.5 million visitors to state parks contributed $126 million to local economies in 2001 — mostly rural areas, according to a study by Northern Arizona University economists.
Visitation at the system fell last year to 2.4 million, but the spending by visitors loomed even larger, given the dismal state of rural economies as evidenced by Payson’s dwindling sales tax revenues. The effect was especially pronounced at Tonto Natural Bridge, where visitation has declined nearly 31 percent from its peak — costing the local economy an estimated $1.8 million.