What was once a pristine natural setting is now scarred and crisscrossed with ugly dirt trails, but Payson Ranger District officials hope they've put an end to the destruction.
The Houston Creek Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Site in Star Valley has been closed to all motorized vehicles -- the first area in the Payson Ranger District where OHVs are banned.
The 50-acre site borders the east side of Moonlight Drive between two private parcels of land, and includes a portion of Houston Creek.
Construction of an off-road race track -- complete with jumps, ovals and other racing features -- followed by a 35-dirt-bike race were the specific acts that finally triggered the closure, but the district has been dealing with OHV damage since 2000.
"It has been my position, and that of my staff, that we would not close the Houston Creek OHV site without making a reasonable attempt to work out a suitable compromise," Ed Armenta, district ranger, wrote to Gene Blankenbaker, Tonto National Forest supervisor, in recommending a special area closure. "Unfortunately, after five years of our efforts, irresponsible use of the area continues."
Armenta's memo details a running battle with OHV operators. Besides noise, dust and riparian destruction, problems included late-night parties, illegal dumping, littering, and campfires that could cause forest fires.
The closure came after what Walt Thole, Payson Ranger District recreation officer, called "reasonable efforts to try to work things out between both sides."
One solution, implemented in 2001, was a partial closure to pickup trucks and Jeeps. It didn't work.
"Over the last four years, the local residents have contacted the Payson Ranger District with complaints that the boulders have been moved and pickup trucks and Jeeps were once again accessing the site," Armenta wrote.
It has now reached a point where groups of racers are coming up from the Valley to hold "unauthorized events -- races," according to Thole.
"They have uniforms, flags, the whole bit," he said.
Access to the Houston Creek site is now blocked by boulders and barricades, and a large warning sign.
Ann Friend, a nearby resident who doesn't own an OHV, has mixed feelings about the closure.
"I hear it a lot, and it's noisy, but it's too bad," she said. "I do know some people who have children and they would meander around."
Aaron Johnson, an all-terrain vehicle enthusiast who also lives near the Houston Creek site, was not especially happy to hear of its closure.
"The only problem is the people who are the racers," he said, "but there's not a lot of other places for them to do it."
Donald Schlundt, whose property abuts the closed area, said closing the area is the only answer.
"In the past few years, it's gotten to be where there are 15 or 20 motorcycles at a time, and they're putting stress on the forest to where it can't recover," he said.
"It's a daily thing, and last Friday there were three of them roaring through here until 2 in the morning."
Violations should be reported to the Payson Ranger District at (928) 474-7900.
"If the Forest Service isn't available, we've already contacted Gila County (Sheriff's Office) and their dispatcher has a copy of the order," Thole said. "I also brought (the) Game and Fish (Department) out here, and they can cite people too."
OHV operators are encouraged to use an alternate site approximately 1 mile north off Forest Road 433. (From the new Circle K in Star Valley, go .7 miles and turn left on the dirt road, then go .5 miles to FR433.)
"We have an old mineral pit there that people are already using for OHVing," Thole said. "It's far enough away from homes, and it's an area where there's not a lot of lush creekside vegetation. It's a good area for people to go play."
Johnson doesn't like the idea.
"It's going to be inconvenient, because a lot of people don't want to trailer their stuff over there," he said.
A map of approved OHV sites is available at the Payson Ranger District Office on Highway 260.
"We have a system that exists for OHVing of over 80 miles," Thole said. "We've been trying to find places for people to use their quads and their ATVs, but the problem here is unacceptable damage to a riparian area."