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Sequester cuts looming, Park Service touts economic impact

CAMP VERDE – If a study by the National Park Service is to be believed, the 500,000 people who visit Montezuma Castle National Monument’s prehistoric cliff dwellings each year have a big impact on the area economy.

But to Steve Goetting, owner of a saloon and art gallery here and chairman of the Camp Verde Chamber of Commerce, there’s potential for even more. Local officials note that roughly 15,000 people venture each year to Fort Verde State Historic Park in town.

“So I’m missing 485,000 people (who) aren’t making the three-mile drive into town,” Goetting said.

A peer-reviewed National Park Service study released recently reported that 279 million visitors to national parks put $13 billion annually directly into communities within 60 miles.

“These people that visit these parks are looking for places to spend their money,” said Ed Mahoney, a Michigan State University professor and co-author of the study.

Dorothy FireCloud, superintendent of Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well as well as nearby Tuzigoot National Monument, said a separate park service study completed recently found that the local economic impact of the castle alone was a little over $24 million annually.

FireCloud said giving national historic status to other archaeological sites in the Verde Valley could help keep castle visitors – and their wallets – in the area.

“Part of that would be to tie all these sites together,” she said. “Start at one end of the valley and end at the other end.”

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Goetting said Camp Verde business leaders would like to see that happen with Clear Creek Ruin and Camp Verde Salt Mine, both on the opposite side of town from the castle. A visitor center, bathrooms, parking, trails and signage would be a tourist draw, he said.

“If those two ruins get higher attention, then we could be looking at another 10,000-15,000 visitors at those two ruins,” he said. “That would be dramatic traffic coming through, almost have to go through downtown to get from one to the other.”

Steve Ayers, economic development director of Camp Verde, said the National Park Service is the perfect partner.

“We see the monuments as part of our economic development model,” Ayers said. “We see them as key players in where we’re headed.”

However, sequestration cuts could interfere with that in the near term. A 5 percent budget cut facing the park service this fiscal year has FireCloud preparing a for a loss in funding.

She estimated an impact of roughly $100,000, including cutting hours and employees. She said if the sequestration effects continue past this year, the monument could be forced to open two hours later, potentially missing out on early morning visitors headed to the Grand Canyon.

In addition, Montezuma Well, a collapsed limestone cavern 11 miles from the castle, may have to close, FireCloud said.

“We’ve just kind of always learned to do less with less,” she said. “Except it’s getting to the breaking point now where we’re not able to do less with less.”

Mahoney, co-author of the national study, said sequestration budget cuts will harm more than just the parks if marketing and maintenance suffer.

“Anything that limits or reduces visits or the length of the visits is going to have a negative economic impact on the community of the national parks,” Mahoney said. “Negative economic impact will fall hardest on the businesses that derive their business from the visitors of national parks.”

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Mahoney said national parks offer more than monetary investments in communities by protecting natural resources and creating a better quality of life for residents who enjoy outdoor activities.

“It’s unfortunate now in this budget period we’re viewing them as an expense instead of an important part of the future of the nation and the future of the nation’s economy,” he said.

Ayers, the town’s economic development director, said the superintendent told him the parks are in relatively good shape even with the looming budget cuts.

“As long as they kept Montezuma Castle open, as far as the town of Camp Verde goes, we would be in fairly decent shape,” he said.

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Cortney Bennett/Cronkite News Service

Park ranger Amy Fulkerson stands in front of Montezuma Well, a collapsed limestone cavern that is part of Montezuma Castle National Monument in the Verde Valley.