Although the U.S. Forest Service has had a series of suspected employee thefts in recent months, that's not why forest officials have installed automated fee collection machines at all popular Tonto National Forest destinations, forester Joe Sitarzewski said.
"There isn't a direct connection, because our contract (for the machines) has been in place for about two years," Sitarzewski, recreation staff officer for Tonto Basin Ranger District, said.
Money was stolen out of the old self-serve lockboxes at all of the Tonto Basin lakes, he said, including Roosevelt, Saguaro, Canyon, Apache and Bartlett. Most of the thefts occurred at Mesa-area lakes, probably because they're closer to Phoenix, he said.
Additionally, a number of machines at Bartlett Lake were vandalized, and one was stolen. It was later recovered by police.
"The thefts certainly reaffirmed our acquisition of the fee machines," said Sitarzewski. "Now our job is to figure out how to protect the machines more effectively."
Visitors to Tonto National Forest locations will be able to use the state-of-the-art machines to pay daily parking fees. The fees will be valid for 24 hours from the time the fee is paid, Forest Supervisor Chuck Bazan said.
"That's an improvement over the old system," Tonto National Forest Public Information Officer Jim Payne said. "A fisherman who paid his fee at 10 p.m. through the old system might have to leave by 6 a.m. the next day. This gives visitors a full 24 hours."
New automated machines have been installed at Canyon and Saguaro lakes. The 24-hour fee period also will apply to Bartlett, Horseshoe, Roosevelt and Apache lakes. Now all six of the heavily used recreation lakes within Tonto National Forest will provide better customer service through the use of automated fee collection machines, Payne said. The 24-hour fee period will not apply to developed campgrounds at Apache and Roosevelt lakes where the checkout will continue to be 2 p.m.
The machines accept cash, coins and Visa or Mastercard credit/debit cards. Personal checks will no longer be accepted. A printed receipt will be issued that must be displayed on the dashboard.