The five-year recreational plan for the nation's most-visited national forest envisions no new facilities, but should allow the 3-million-acre Tonto National Forest to maintain its current, overtaxed 100 developed sites.
The Five Year Recreation Facility Analysis also comes to the surprising conclusion that the tiny Tonto Creek Campground ranks as the No. 1 site on the whole forest, when it comes to visitor satisfaction and exemplifying the forest's "niche" among visitors, according to Dave Killebrew, the recreation planner who wrote the report.
The forest service is seeking comments on the report through Jan. 15. Users can read a copy at www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto/projects/rfa/indx.shtml and send comments to Killebrew via e-mail at dkillebrew@fs.
"That whole stretch of Tonto Creek between the campground and Kohl's Ranch, for whatever reason, scored the highest on the whole forest -- which means it would be first in line for maintenance funds," said Killebrew.
And that's handy -- since the report also documented the woeful, unfunded backlog in maintenance needed at the forest's 50 fee-charging sites, most of them concentrated near man-made lakes along the Salt and Verde Rivers, which account for most of the staggering six million annual visits a year to the Tonto National Forest.
The forest is at least $2.6 million behind in maintaining current facilities, which is one reason the agency has no plans to add any campgrounds, boat ramps, picnic tables or other new facilities in the next five years, forest officials said.
"We're not saying, ‘we'll build it and they'll they'll come' -- we're saying ‘they're already coming, we have to accommodate use,'" said Killebrew.
Most of the visitors to the sprawl of deserts and low forests between the Verde River live in the Phoenix area and take day trips to sightsee or boat or fish on the string of reservoirs that provide a key water supply for the Valley.
The six major reservoirs, including Roosevelt Lake, hold about 2 million acre-feet. Created originally to protect the watershed for the Phoenix metro area, the reservoirs now account for the bulk of the forest's recreation -- with Saguaro Lake alone accounting for about 400,000 visits each year. Visits to the forest have been growing in lock step with the explosive growth of the Phoenix area, noted Killebrew.
The forest includes eight wilderness areas, the state's only Wild and Scenic River area on the Verde and 400 different vertebrate species, including 21 considered endangered or threatened.
Ranchers have permits to graze about 26,000 cattle on the forests, although a decade of drought has prompted the forest service to cut the cattle allotments for most ranchers by about 80 percent. Logging companies harvest about 4 million board-feet per year from the Tonto, which is only a fraction of the total on other of the state's forests.
Although the forest has fallen far behind in its routine maintenance of existing facilities and has no plans to add new sites to keep pace with visitor growth, it's actually the envy of many other struggling national forests who may have to start closing existing sites for lack of the money to maintain them, he said.
That's because the budget of the mostly treeless Tonto National Forest has always focused on recreation and watershed protection rather than logging and ranching -- which generate most of the fees in other forests. The Tonto forest collects about $2 million annually in recreation fees, most of it from the $10-per-day cost of driving up and launching a boat from one of the lakes. However, the fees charged only cover about half the cost of operating the forest's facilities.
All told, the forest spends about $1.3 million annually on routine maintenance, $1.3 million annually on operating costs and $1.4 million on general overhead, said Killebrew.
Hiring private companies to run most of the campgrounds in the Payson Ranger District has also eased the upkeep and maintenance problems for the forest.
The four Rim area campgrounds are operated by a for-profit, private company called Recreation Resource Management, which charges $14 to $18 per vehicle to camp in sites with 50 to 100 camps each -- almost all of which fill up during the prime spring and summer weekends.
The private company pays 3-5 percent of its revenue into the federal treasury, rather than to the forest -- which remains responsible for major renovations. However, the private company performs routine maintenance, which further reduces the forest's overall problem in keeping up with the wear and tear on facilities, said Killebrew.
Congress required every national forest in the country to complete the five-year review, hoping to get a handle on the total maintenance and recreational demands in the whole system. The systematic review revealed even more threadbare facilities and harder choices in most of the other forests, without money coming in from heavy visitation from a nearby urban area.
"On the Tonto National Forest, we're in a very unique position -- since we're one of the most heavily used forests in the nation," said Killebrew.
The Tonto National Forest rated each of the 100 different campgrounds, boating facilities, day use areas and maintained trailheads it operates in the 3-million-acre forest to give each site a priority listing when it comes to maintenance and improvements.
The criteria included total usage, visitor satisfaction, unique attributes and whether the site conforms to the forest's "niche," of water related recreation.
The Tonto Creek campground ranked number one in the entire forest.
The other sites in the top 20 included:
- Upper Tonto Creek -- campground
- Saguaro Del Norte Boating -- boating
- Blue Point Recreation Site -- picnic
- Canyon Lake Vista -- observation
- Needle Vista -- observation
- Needle Rock -- campground
- Palo Verde -- boating
- Saguaro Del Norte -- fishing
- Christopher Creek -- campground
- East Verde Crossing -- picnic
- Boulder Fishing -- fishing
- Laguna -- boating
- Fish Creek Vista -- observation
- Christopher Creek Group -- camping
- Acacia Fishing -- fishing
- Horseshoe -- campground
- SB Cove -- camping
- Butcher Jones Picnic -- picnic
- Water Users -- Trailhead
- Coon Bluff -- picnic
Other Payson Ranger District Sites:
23 Houston Mesa -- camping
24 Sharp Creek -- camping
25 Sharp Creek Group -- camping
28 Christopher Creek Picnic -- picnic