Chamber Out To Conquer Rim's Ecotourism Frontier


Every day, guides lead groups of tourists on a strenuous trek deep into the dense forests of Uganda. People trudge through thick, barbed vegetation for three hours for the chance to get a glimpse of the rare and elusive mountain gorilla.

This activity and many like it in places around the world are part of a new kind of travel experience called ecotourism. Besides providing travelers with a unique opportunity to learn about an area, ecotourism offers many advantages to the destination area, so many that a group of Rim country leaders have begun putting a program together for this area.

"People who drive through town isn't tourism," said Tom Kaleta, CEO of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce. "People who stop for a cup of coffee isn't tourism. It's people who spend the night, so we have to provide reasons for them to come.

"We've got the rodeo. We've got the fiddlers contest. We've got the blues festival. We've got the cowboy poets. But ecotourism could be a destination we do every day."

By definition, ecotourism means experiencing an area's natural resources firsthand including pristine ecosystems and habitats where humans have yet to leave their fingerprints often on a guided tour conducted on foot, bike, horseback or by four-wheel drive.

"We're surrounded by forest, but we really haven't marketed it beyond a place to camp," Kaleta said.

"But just as important, if we become more in tune with our environment, we're going to be better stewards of the land. We don't have a lot of water, but if we understand the relation that water has even to the primary organisms that live in it, maybe we'd all be a little better about how we protect it."

Besides attracting more tourists on a year-round basis and educating people about local flora and fauna, the fact that it takes nothing away from the environment is a big advantage of ecotourism. Unlike hunters, fishermen and campers, ecotourists are mostly observers.

"It's one of cleanest industries you'll find," said Bryan Siverson, owner of Rim Travel Service and a member of the Payson Town Council.

Of course the eco part of ecotourism means it takes a natural environment that's worth experiencing. According to Cheryl Carrothers, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, the Tonto National Forest has abundant possibilities.

"We have rare birds and lots of riparian areas for bird watchers," Carrothers said. "We have wintering bald eagles right now.

"We have lots of active streams, with specialized plants. We even have a very rare peat bog with plants that are potentially thousands of years old.

"We have our elk herds, and when the bulls are in rut and bugling in the fall that can be really spectacular. Within 10 miles of Payson there are some major elevation gradients with very specific species at each level."

But as promising as ecotourism is for the Rim country, there are obstacles to overcome before it becomes a reality.

"People will come to see what we have, but we need programs," Kaleta said. "We have the forest, but we don't have the trained people to take them out on tours and make it a great experience."

With a mandate to look into ecotourism as part of its bed tax agreement with the town, the chamber is trying to bring the components together.

Kaleta has asked the Arizona Office of Tourism for support and talked with Northern Arizona University officials to try to set up a training program for guides.

While funding is a concern, a meeting with forest officials on Wednesday produced a pledge of support.

"If we can provide the trained people, the Forest Service is willing to give us more access to the woods, and maybe to help us develop some brochures," Kaleta said.

Ed Armenta, the new district ranger, said he is eager to work with the community and the chamber.

"It's a good non-consumptive use of our natural resources," Armenta said, "and it's something we definitely need ... in this area."

Armenta, who assumed his position in the Rim country last July, was involved with ecotourism when he worked at the Sequoia National Forest in California. The important thing, he says, is to start somewhere.

"Ecotourism has a lot of facets to it. It can be as simple as trying to improve the areas where wildlife is with benches and signs and passive things.

In some respects, local Forest Service officials have already made a start. "We have the Dude Fire auto tour, and nature tours from some of the campgrounds, and we talk to school groups," Carrothers said.

Kaleta said he wants to build on the four-wheel-drive touring companies that recently began operating in the Rim country.

"At Santee Cooper Lake in North Carolina, they entertain about 1,000 visitors a week who come out to watch birds," he said. "They have sightseeing vehicles and pontoon boats that hold 40 people.

"Some people want to ride in the woods and bounce along on the trails, and some want to stop and look you know, this is this and this is that and this only grows in this part of the world.

"But it can't be a dry, sterile experience. It has to be that blend that's knowledge, that's excitement, that's all those things that we don't offer now.

"We can't guarantee people will actually see what they have set out to see, but with quality guides we can show people the relationships that exist without them feeling cheated."

Kaleta is contacting Washington to look for grant money and Armenta is researching a rural community assistance program offered by the Forest Service.

Siverson, who is also co-owner of Payson Adventures 4X4 Tours, thinks that travel industry exposure is critically important.

"One of the major things is getting the word out, and we can do that by having seminars for travel people where we get them out and show them what we're talking about," he said.

Kaleta also would like to get other groups and organizations involved.

"We need to get the tribe and the museums involved," he said. "The chamber can be the catalyst, but we need a lot of other people to help get this done."

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