Tonto Forest Is Getting Trashed

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There's a collection of washers, dryers, refrigerators, patio furniture, roofing shingles and paint.

But it's not a shopping trip to The Home Depot. It's a drive down Forest Road 209 off Highway 87 just 2 miles north of Payson.

Also known as Crackerjack Road, the rutted dirt road winds through the lush Tonto National Forest. Its beauty and seclusion make it a popular spot for campers and other outdoor enthusiasts, but it's also become a favorite place for illegal dumping.

"Crackerjack Road is probably our worst area for dumping, and it's getting worse," Payson Ranger District Recreation Officer Walt Thole said.

Drive a mile or so down FR 209 -- roofing shingles are thrown in a heap next to a half-dozen rusting washers and dryers. A neighboring queen-size mattress is perched in a tree.

Further on, a tire rests in a stream while piles of romance novels are scattered around a deserted, ransacked camping trailer.

Thole said abandoned cars are another common and expensive problem for the Forest Service to remove.

"We have (the cars) hauled off by one of the local wreckers," Thole said. "But it still costs the government, with the actual costs of hauling (the cars) off and the people involved, probably over $300 a vehicle."

Although there's a proliferation of illegal dump sites throughout the forest, Crackerjack has become the worst.

"We get a lot of transients out here," he said. "And then it's on the way to the landfill and people just take the easy way out."

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Washers, dryers and even a mattress in a tree were among the items illegally dumped along Crackerjack Road. Payson Ranger District officials are asking forest users to report illegal dumping if they see it.

Taking trash to the landfill only costs about $10 a load -- but if you're caught dumping in the forest, you could face fines up to $500 and six months in jail.

Thole said the ranger district simply doesn't have the manpower to catch many of the perpetrators who dump all over the Rim country's forests.

"There's just so much area to cover you can't really physically do it," Thole said. "It is so easy on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday, especially in the wintertime, to dump on the forest."

And now the state is involved. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality recently wrote a letter to this ranger district, threatening to fine the Forest Service if an area near Rim Trail, another popular dumping site, isn't cleaned up.

"If ADEQ starts sending the Forest Service a violation notice for everything that's thrown out in the forest, the taxpayers are going to pay for that," said Thole.

Forest Service law enforcement personnel are trying to get more creative in their efforts to foil illegal dumping. They've set up surveillance cameras in key areas of the forest.

"(Perpetrators) can have their photos taken with infrared cameras while they dump," Dan Smith, district law enforcement officer, said.

To help prevent illegal dumping, the Forest Service also relies on the help of people who use the forests responsibly.

"Just try to get information, a vehicle or a license plate that we can follow up on," Thole said. "If (dumpers) get away with it a couple times they'll keep using the same area."

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Walt Thole, Payson Ranger District recreation officer, examines piles of romance novels, which were among items scattered outside an abandoned camper trailer in the forest near Crackerjack Road.

The district is also trying to get more clubs and organizations with a vested interest in the forest involved.

A cleanup project along FR 433 last year brought together members of the Rim Country 4 Wheelers, the Payson Horseman's Association, the Gila County Trails Alliance, and Tonto Rim Search and Rescue.

Thole would like to see areas of the forest adopted much as roadways are through the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Rim Country 4 Wheelers, for example, cleans up about 60 miles of adopted forest roads in the Payson and Pleasant Valley ranger districts.

"Illegal dumping is a huge problem," Chuck Jacobs, president of the 4 Wheelers, said. "We like to blame the weekenders for a lot of the problems, but when you see an old mattress or refrigerator thrown out in the forest, you know it isn't somebody from Phoenix who did that."

The Forest Service counts on individuals who volunteer their time to keep the forests clean.

"One local citizen approached us and we give him bags to fill and then we take them to the landfill; another offered to provide a dump truck and other heavy equipment," said Thole.

Residents can avoid becoming unwitting forest dumpers by hiring reputable people.

"A lot of times what we find is somebody who is moving, or a senior will pay somebody to take their trash to the landfill and the trash ends up in the forest," Thole said.

He also recommended seeing a receipt from the landfill.

"Otherwise you won't know until we find an item with your name on it, give you a call and say, ‘Hey, your trash is out here on Crackerjack Road and we're going to give you a ticket unless you deal with it.'"

The bottom line, Thole said, is don't dump illegally in the forest.

"The easiest and best thing for people to do is to get rid of their garbage in a legitimate place," Smith added.

Without the support of the public, Thole feared the district is fighting a losing battle.

"What's really sad," he said, "is that I've been here since 1993, and we've cleaned this area up at least four times. It's quite frustrating to put that effort out and you're right back to this kind of situation."

For more information or to report illegal dumping in the forest, call the Payson Ranger District office at (928) 474-7900.

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