Arizona officials propose closing 13 state parks

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PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona officials are recommending the closure of 13 state parks in response to budget cuts enacted late last year.

The cuts spare some of the most popular parks, including Kartchner Caverns and Slide Rock. But officials say they may have to close more parks if they can’t raise $3 million from entry fees by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The recommendations were released Monday. The State Parks Board is set to consider them Friday morning at a meeting in Phoenix. Board members must cut $8.6 million in response to midyear budget cuts enacted during the Legislature’s December special session.

Four parks, closed following budget cuts last year, would remain shut. Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Park would continue to be operated by the City of Yuma, an arrangement crafted after the park was slated for closure last year.

The proposal by State Parks staff includes three waves of closures. Four parks would close on Feb. 22, four on March 29 and five on June 3.

Figures from State Parks indicate that six parks are profitable on a per-visitor basis: Alamo near Wenden, Kartchner Caverns in Benson, Slide Rock near Sedona, Catalina near Tucson, Dead Horse Ranch near Cottonwood and Lake Havasu at Lake Havasu City. They would remain open under the proposal, along with Buckskin Mountain near Parker, Cattail Cove at Lake Havasu City and Fool Hollow near Show Low.

They were chosen because they generate the most revenue over the summer, when cash is most needed, said Renee Bahl, executive director of Arizona State Parks. Officials hope fee increases slated for March 1 will also boost revenue.

“Our goal is to keep as many parks open and operating as much as possible,” Bahl said. “Keep these rural economies thriving … and keep people out and enjoying parks and open spaces.

Among the parks proposed for closure are: Tonto Natural Bridge near Payson, Red Rock near Sedona, Lost Dutchman near Apache Junction and Tombstone Courthouse in Tombstone.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said Tonto Natural Bridge is a key part of the city’s efforts to entice tourists to stay and shop in town. He said the park’s closure would be a blow for the city’s economy and reputation.

“We have worked hard to become a destination town as opposed to a town people just drive through on their way to somewhere else, and the state park has been an important part of that,” Evans said.

Payson has funded limited operations at Natural Bridge since the parks board considered closing it last year. Evans said he hopes another deal can be reached.