Wildfires burning through a number of Arizona’s pristine national forests since June have left many outdoor recreational businesses struggling amid a wave of park closures and lost tourism.
As if the pandemic downtown wasn’t bad enough, Troyscot Farrar, general manager at Arizona High Mountain Trail Rides at Mormon Lake, nestled within the Coconino National Forest, said he’s lost half his horseback ride reservations since the park closure went into effect June 23.
“It’s been devastating a little bit,” Farrar said. “The forest closure did close out our rides”—at least on public trails around Mormon Lake.
Farrar said last year the horseback riding service booked 165 riders. This year, that number plummeted to just 30 because of the fires.
“It’s been a huge hit. We might get some last minute people,” he said.
He’s determined to keep the business going this summer by providing limited rides on private park land not affected by the closure.
Farrar said the business is now offering limited Fire Closure Grassland Rides while hopeful the park will reopen in July.
“My hope is that some of the rain we’ve been getting will continue. Hopefully, by the end of July they might lift the restrictions,” Farrar said.
Since early June, 16 wildfires, mostly caused by lightning amid unusually dry conditions, have been raging throughout Arizona—from Nogales and Tucson north to Prescott and Flagstaff, consuming over 400,000 acres of forest, brush, and open range.
Some of the fires are now up to 80 percent contained.
On June 10, Governor Doug Ducey announced a legislative special session in response to the wildfires.
“We will spare no expense when it comes to protecting Arizona communities from wildfires. It’s absolutely imperative that we go into this fight prepared,” Ducey said. “We will continue to put all our efforts towards these fires so we can contain them and prevent any more hurt, loss and suffering in our communities.”
The Rafael Fire, burning in the Prescott National Forest since June 18, and consuming nearly 80,000 acres, was caused by lightning. The fire began working its way into Sycamore Canyon, threatening the neighboring Kaibab National Forest and the 1.89 million acre Coconino National Forest in Flagstaff and Sedona.
Coconino National Forest spokeswoman Randi Shaffer said no specific date has been determined for when the park will reopen this summer.
“We are in talks but our talks kind of depend on the potential risk of wildfires and precipitation levels,” Shaffer said. “We have to weigh access to public safety to public access to the park.”
At Flagstaff Adventure Co., an off-road vehicle service, General Manager Korey Seyler said the impact of the Kaibab and Coconino park closures haven’t affected his business directly since it doesn’t hold permits for access to these parks.
“Luckily for the guests going with us [on other excursions] there’s been no effect, but we have to tell people what they’re up against,” Seyler said.
Due to the extreme fire danger in the Coconino forest, Thunder Mountain Bikes in Sedona said it was unable to rent trail bikes for Sedona riding.
For other businesses, the park closures haven’t been that bad for business.
“It’s definitely slowed down a little bit in Flagstaff, but our business has been steady,” said Maddie Smith, store associate at Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters in Flagstaff. “Once people realize they can’t go hiking, they go around Flagstaff and shop.”
Absolute Bikes Flagstaff General Manager Kyle McKendree agreed there’s a bright side to the park closures.
Recently, he’s seen an uptick in customers coming into the shop for bike tune-ups they’ve been putting off for months.
McKendree said sales have also been good since the pandemic fueled a “bike boom—and that boom isn’t stopping because of the fires.”
“The only thing we see is a slowdown in foot traffic, but not that much,” McKendree said.
Still, he said people are “so bummed they can’t go to the forest, so we play tour guide and direct them to other places to see in Flagstaff. If people really want to ride a bike we point them to Prescott because they have some city-owned trails that they keep open.”
How soon Arizona’s parks reopen for tourism will depend on the approaching monsoon season and the amount of precipitation the region receives.
“Once we get a couple of good months of solid moisture, they’ll reopen,” McKendree said.
The Historical Hitchn’ Post Stables, a horseback riding service in Flagstaff, closed due to the wildfires, was also upbeat about its forecast.
“Pray for some rain, and we’ll be back up and riding soon,” the company’s voice message said.