Under a new Tonto National Forest plan, Rim Country residents and visitors may well end up paying extra fees to have a picnic, take a hike or find a place to park the car so they can go fishing.
Moreover, residents who want a year-round pass may have to buy one $80 annual pass for most of the forest and a separate pass for most of the campgrounds and day-use areas in the Payson Ranger District, in addition to a Tonto Pass.
The Forest Service says it’s just adding a few sites to the campgrounds already managed by concessionaires — but we’ve got a sinking feeling we’ve seen this all before.
Tonto National Forest has put out a proposal seeking bids from private contractors to run campgrounds and day-use areas throughout the Payson Ranger District — including four new day-use areas along the East Verde River, plus the revamped Shoofly Ruins site off Houston Mesa Road and on various popular hiking trails.
The proposal raises two questions: How much should we have to pay to use our own land and how much of the cash should wind up in the pockets of private contractors?
The proposal falls in line with the trend started years ago in the Red Rock Ranger District of the Coconino National Forest, where forest planners want to charge the public fees to do almost anything on land voters already own. Taxpayers already pay taxes to provide the money to manage our national forests. But the Coconino Forest decided we should pay extra to park on forest land and enjoy the forest. Seems like the only thing the policy didn’t cover was looking at the scenery through the car window.
One citizen ticketed for not having a Red Rock Pass on his dashboard when he parked alongside a dirt road miles from the nearest Forest Service maintained facility so he could hike up to Vultee Arch filed a lawsuit. A judge ultimately ruled the Forest Service could only impose a reasonable fee needed to build or maintain public facilities — like developed campgrounds or a boat ramp or water and toilets in a day-use area, not to park.
And that brings us back to some of the odd details of the Tonto National Forest’s request for proposals from private contractors to run most of the campgrounds, day-use areas and maybe even popular trailheads.
The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition filed a protest as part of its persistent opposition to almost any fee on the use of public lands by the public. The coalition protested Tonto Forest’s plan in part because it includes picnic areas and possibly even trailheads on the list of sites on which the private contractors might bid. The Coalition maintains Tonto Forest wants to use contractors as a stalking horse to impose fees on the use of relatively undeveloped areas, despite the message of earlier court cases.
Currently, private contractors manage only campgrounds in the Payson Ranger District. Last year, the contractors collected some $345,000 in fees. If all the money that forest users will pay under this new plan went to the betterment of the land, that might make sense. But in this case, the contractor keeps a big chunk of the money to cover costs and yield a profit and get around federal law.
The inclusion of the day-use areas and trailheads in the proposal certainly feeds the fear that this proposal represents another step on a slippery slope. We hope the Tonto National Forest isn’t considering an attempt at sneaking around federal law by letting a private contractor charge for using public lands and call it “managing” the site.
For instance, federal law clearly prohibits the Forest Service from charging for simply parking to use a trail for a hike into undeveloped backcountry. A recent federal court decision upheld that law when hikers challenged the Red Rock District of the Coconino National Forest parking fees. Unfortunately, forest planners appear to be trying to find some way around that judge’s ruling.
So be prepared. Unless the public makes itself heard, we could well wake up to find new fees imposed on people parking at such places as Horton Creek, Derrick Creek, Ellison/Cold Spring, Two Sixty, See Canyon, Pine and Fossil Springs trailheads.
Want to take a drive on a Sunday afternoon and have a picnic at Christopher Creek, Midway, First Crossing, Second Crossing, Third Crossing, Water Wheel, East Verde or any number of other places? Be prepared to first pay a private contractor $6 or $10 for the privilege of having your lunch on national forest land you already own and pay taxes to manage.
What’s next? Make Forest Road 300 a toll road?
And remember those federal passes you purchased so you won’t have to hassle with a day-use fee every time you wanted to go fishing or take a hike? Those will not be honored.
Rim Country forest users have a voice — contact the Tonto National Forest and make it clear where you stand — the Forest Service must abide by the law and not charge fees for hiking trails, parking and undeveloped areas. And Tonto Forest should not penalize Rim Country residents by making them buy two different annual passes to enjoy the forests we already own.