The U.S. Forest Service is hurtling along with a $300,000 plan to build four day-use areas on the banks of the East Verde River along Houston Mesa Road.
Soon after the 700-acre Water Wheel Fire terrified residents in nearby subdivisions, the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest shut most of the area along the river to camping and applied for money to put in day-use parking areas and toilets to protect the fragile area.
Crews will start work at the end of
October to create paved parking areas at four sites along Houston Mesa Road — First Crossing, Water Wheel, Second Crossing and Third Crossing. The Forest Service will pay for the parking lot work with about $196,000 from the national Legacy Roads and Trails Fund, thanks to a grant the quick-witted rangers in the Payson office applied for after the fire.
The local office also got a roughly $100,000 grant to build four concrete vault toilets, which look like regular concrete block bathrooms — but which must be pumped out periodically.
The Payson Ranger District will use another $20,000 or so in local recreation funds to put in signs and picnic tables.
“Basically, we’re trying to have the whole thing open for business in the spring,” said assistant district ranger Larry Vogel.
Vogel said the district hasn’t yet decided exactly how to manage the newly developed areas, which have long been popular, unregulated camping and picnicking areas.
The Forest Service will probably charge a day-use fee to use the parking lots and other facilities, but hasn’t yet figured out how much to charge or whether to offer some sort of an annual pass to residents — as the Forest Service does in Sedona. Vogel said he didn’t know whether the ban on camping will remain in place, but said the extensive closures encompassing the burn areas will likely be lifted by the spring.
Residents in nearby communities like Whispering Pines and Beaver Valley have long worried about the many untended campfires left behind and by the constant threat of sewage contamination of the stream from the wastes of campers, who have no access to toilets along miles of river.
The Water Wheel Fire started just across the road from the unregulated Water Wheel campground and spread rapidly, forcing the evacuation of Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines. Firefighters later said only sudden shifts in the wind saved both of those communities nities from devastation.
That fire has inflicted serious damage on the watershed, causing mudflows and siltation into the East Verde River, one of the region’s prime recreational attractions.
Paul Ruettgers, who lives near the East Verde River, said silt has buried once-clear pools along miles of river.
“A lot of it is just featureless now,” said Ruettgers. “Silt and mud have filled the plunge pools. It’s just a mess all the way from First Crossing to East Verde Estates.”
He blamed the Forest Service for not doing more to prevent mud from flowing off the denuded slopes of Diamond Point seared by the Water Wheel Fire.
“If they’d at least have attempted to do something, the river might have had a chance,” concluded Ruettgers.
“I used to take my dogs to swim in pools 10 feet deep, but they’re all sedimented out. I walk that creek constantly. I am the eyes and ears of that streambed and it’s crying out for help.”
Vogel said the Forest Service put into place “straw logs” to slow runoff from the hillsides, but only the return of vegetation on the slopes could protect the creek.
“I know there’s a lot of sediment going into the stream right now, I’ve seen it. But what the full effects are is a judgment I can’t make right now.”
The Forest Service moved quickly to establish the day-use areas, bar uncontrolled camping and get the $300,000 in grants following the near disaster of the Water Wheel Fire.
“The biggest issue was watershed quality — not to control use, but to keep the poop off the ground and the sediment out of the stream from the parking areas,” said Vogel.
He disputed complaints that the Forest Service doesn’t move fast enough to protect areas like the East Verde.
“We turn a lot of things over as fast as we get information. We’re often the scapegoat for what’s taking so long. I pretty much resent that we’re always implicated as the ones dragging our feet.”
Interestingly enough, Payson officials who have been prodding the Forest Service to move quickly to approve a path for the Blue Ridge pipeline along Houston Mesa Road have privately expressed concerns about whether the Forest Service is moving too fast on the recreational parking lot areas.
A consulting firm is nearing completion of an environmental impact statement on the pipeline. That study will ultimately determine the precise route of the pipeline, which will run from Washington Park to the plateau near the Shoofly Ruins along Houston Mesa Road.
One route would put the pipeline right at the edge of the road for most of that journey. An alternative route would in several places take the pipeline up away from the creek and the vulnerable river crossings.
Payson officials have expressed concern that the newly paved parking lots might lie in the path of the pipeline, forcing Payson to tear up portions of the parking lots and rebuild them to accommodate the pipeline in several years.
However, Vogel said that as far as he knows, the parking lots and day-use areas won’t interfere with the pipeline route.
“As far as I know, that’s not an issue,” he said. “This project’s ready to go.”