The 40,000 visitors to Tonto National Monument pump $3.6 million annually into the region’s economy, according to a just-completed analysis by the National Park Service.

The monument itself supports 36 local jobs and prompts $2.4 million in direct spending by visitors. But the indirect spending to serve the needs of the monument and its visitors pumps the total up to $3.6 million, according to the study.

“We are delighted to share the story of the Salado cliff dwellings and other remarkable cultural sites,” said Monument Superintendent Duane Hubbard. “National Park tourism is a significant driver in the national and local Gila County economy.”

The monument preserves two major sets of ruins and a host of other archaeological sites. Some of those sites preserve evidence of stone-age cultures some 10,000 years ago. The Clovis campsites contain artifacts left by people who manufactured distinctive stone spear points to hunt the mastodons, camels, sloths and other creatures that lived in the much wetter woodlands of the region at the end of the last ice age some 10,000 years ago.

The Clovis people gave way to later, more settled cultures in the ensuing millennium. Some people began growing corn, beans and squash along the Salt River in the area now covered by Roosevelt Lake.

Some 1,000 years ago, they developed elaborate irrigation systems and a chain of cities along the Salt River.

During the height of their culture, they built great, irrigation-dependent cities. They also developed a pottery style that spread throughout the Southwest known as Roosevelt Red Wares and Salado Polychrome. The spread of this distinctive pottery style may have reflected the regional dominance of a religious and cultural cult, which inspired imitators throughout the region.

The Salado then built cliff dwellings at the base of soaring cliffs far above the Salt River some 700 years ago. No one knows for sure why they went to the enormous effort of building cliff dwellings so far from the irrigated farmlands that sustained them. They built two clusters of dwellings during that time, but only fully occupied the 30- and 40-room dwellings for perhaps 30 years, before people began moving away.

They went to great effort of building the cliff dwellings close to where springs seeped from the base of sandstone cliffs rising for hundreds of feet above them, but occupied most of the rooms for less than a century. Perhaps they were seeking more defensible homes in the face of regional conflict with other cultures. Perhaps they shifted away from the valley floor to make use of wild plants and animals, as floods and drought made harvests in the Tonto Basin less reliable.

In any case, they began to move away in the mid 1300s and by the mid 1400s had vanished. Many archaeologists suspect it was due to climate shifts that resulted in a sequence of droughts and flood episodes that devastated the irrigation works in the Tonto Basin as well as in the valley along the Salt and Verde rivers. The agricultural and irrigation collapse could have triggered regional conflicts between cultures, leading to a simultaneous collapse of 1,000-year-old civilizations from Colorado into southern Arizona.

Tonto National Monument protects some of the best remains of the Salado culture in the region, with the core Salado area now drowned beneath the waters of Roosevelt Lake.

The estimate of the economic impact of Tonto National Monument was part of a national survey focused on the network of national parks by economists Catherine Cullinane Thomas and Egan Cornachione of the U.S. Geological Survey and Lynne Koontz of the National Park Service.

Nationally the 318 million visitors to the nation’s national parks spend $20 billion within 60 miles of a national park. This generates 329,000 jobs nationally, with a total benefit to the economy of $40 billion.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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