The Tonto National Forest’s decision to expand its use of private contractors to run campgrounds, day-use sites and possibly trails in the Payson Ranger District has triggered protests by a group fighting fees on public lands.
Supporters say the proposal for bids from concessionaires will merely expand the program from half a dozen existing campgrounds to include the new day-use areas along the East Verde River and other sites.
“It works well in districts that don’t have a lot of staff people,” said Greg Schuster, a recreation specialist with the Tonto National Forest’s headquarters in Phoenix. “Payson has traditionally been a concession district.”
Critics say the proposal represents an end-run around court cases that prevent the Forest Service from charging fees for lightly developed facilities — like hiking trails and roadside parking.
“The Forest Service defends recreation fees by claiming that they retain the money and use it to directly benefit the place you visited. But by leasing federally owned recreation facilities to private firms, they completely discredit that argument. These fees are just another tax and concessionaires are just private tax collectors,” said Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, based in Colorado.
Much of the debate centers on a string of day-use picnic areas along the East Verde River, where the Forest Service added paved parking and toilets in the wake of the Wagon Wheel Fire that two years ago started near an unregulated, informal camping area and threatened to consume both Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines.
Other sites on the bid list are Christopher Creek, Horton Creek, Midway and Flowing Springs. None of these sites have undergone a review that establishes they meet federal standards for fees, say the no-fee coalition.
The debate gains an added wrinkle for local residents because the private concessionaires will not have to honor the Tonto Forest Pass, which allows unlimited access to Forest Service-run sites for $80 to $95 annually. They will also not honor national passes or passes for seniors or those with disabilities.
The proposal would require the concessionaires to give a 50 percent discount for seniors and to issue an annual pass for all the sites operated by the concessionaire. Currently, fees for the privately run campgrounds in the district range from $14 to $20 per car.
The existing campsites generate about $344,000 annually in fees. The concessionaire must pay a minimum of $18,000 to the district to get the contract.
Schuster said officials at the forest office are reviewing the complaint. The current schedule calls for the private contractors to submit bids by May 7.
The Forest Service hopes to award a bid by the end of the year. In the meantime, the Forest Service will continue to manage the sites.
Some local residents have decried the plan to impose fees on anyone who takes advantage of the parking in the new East Verde sites to hike the river and fish.
The rules continue to ban camping along the river and campfires. They say they’ll have to now pay a fee to use areas in which they’ve long enjoyed hiking, camping and fishing.
Moreover, they may have to buy one annual pass to use the areas run by the concessionaires and a separate pass to use Forest Service-operated areas in the rest of the forest, which includes Roosevelt Lake and the string of lakes along the Salt River near Phoenix.
On the other hand, some local residents welcome the fees and the increased supervision of the areas along the East Verde, where campers often leave trash and smoldering campfires.
The Western Slope Coalition has gotten involved on the grounds that the proposal represents the camel’s nose under the tent of a big increase in fees.
Federal law and previous court cases have held that the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management can only charge fees for developed amenities, like toilets, campgrounds and boat ramps. Judges have ruled the Forest Service can’t impose fees for things like hiking across public lands, parking alongside the road and undeveloped campsites.
However, the Coalition insisted that the inclusion of day-use areas and trailheads on the list of sites to be managed is an effort to circumvent that legal limitation by using private contractors.
Previously, the Coalition helped challenge the Red Rock fee imposed by the Coconino National Forest in Sedona. That prompted a court ruling the Forest Service could not charge for parking in an undeveloped area or hiking across public land.
“This new prospectus vastly expands the number of fee sites and puts them into private hands,” said Benzar.
“It’s a clear attempt to evade federal legal requirements and prohibitions on where fees can be charged.
“What’s more, the new concessionaire would not be required to honor federally issued recreation passes that are legally required to be accepted at day-use sites, but would instead be allowed to create and market their own annual pass, keeping all the revenue from both pass sales and use fees.”
Benzar said the need to get both a Tonto Forest pass and a separate pass from the concessionaire would make the Payson Ranger District “the most expensive federal recreational land in the country.”
The proposal says the concessionaire cannot charge people solely for parking, picnicking along roads or trail sides, general access, use of “dispersed areas with low or no investment,” driving or hiking through the area, undeveloped campsites, stopping at scenic pullouts, use of the roads or waterways or extra services needed as a result of a disability.
However, the permit also includes a list of trailheads that could be included in the contract. Those ”optional” trailheads include See Canyon, Pine, Fossil Springs, the East Verde Picnic Area and the Flowing Springs Picnic Area.
Schuster said “just because it’s included in the contract doesn’t mean it’s a fee area.” For instance, he said a concessionaire might offer to put trash facilities or a portable toilet at the trailhead without charging a fee to sweeten the deal in hopes of getting the contract for the developed campgrounds.
He said the fees have to roughly match the fees charged in the campgrounds and recreational facilities in the rest of the forest.
Generally, the Forest Service charges $6 per day for most facilities and $10 a day for specialized facilities, like the boat ramps at Saguaro and Canyon lakes.
However, the concessionaires already operating in the Payson District charge $14-$20 for the existing developed campgrounds, which include toilets, group facilities, campfire rings, tables and other facilities.