The Payson Ranger District continues to study the impact of imposing fees on people who use day-use areas and trailheads, in the shadow of legal challenges and complaints.
Tonto National Forest Acting Manager Tom Klabunde said the Payson Ranger District will likely work out lower fees and a low-cost annual pass that will reduce the expense of using parking areas and trailheads, especially for locals who visit the sites frequently.
“The concessionaire has made some proposals to reduce some fees, drop some fees and have a pass put together that would be very doable for the locals,” said Klabunde.
The effort to work out lower fees or passes stemmed in part from protests by local groups, long accustomed to using the East Verde River and other Rim Country sites to hike and fish. Those groups were alarmed by the possibility they would have to buy separate passes to use different sites.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans recently met with Forest Service officials in an effort to work out a compromise.
However, Kitty Benzar, head of the Western Slope Coalition, said that any fees the Forest Service imposes for use of trailhead or places like the paved, day-use sites along Houston Mesa Road are illegal.
“What they’ve already done is clearly, blatantly illegal,” said Benzar, whose Colorado-based organization has been fighting a steady rise in different fees that effectively limit access to public land.
She cited several court cases that held the Forest Service could charge fees to cover the cost of operating things like marinas and campgrounds, but could not charge fees if they had the effect of limiting access to public lands.
One court case involved a man who got a ticket for not buying a Red Rock Pass in Sedona after he parked at the trailhead to Vultee Arch. The court held that Forest Service fees must raise money to maintain specific facilities, not control access to trails and public lands.
Klabunde said the facilities clearly fall under the definitions of the sorts of sites for which the Forest Service can collect fees. He said private concessionaires have to go by the same rules — but don’t necessarily have to honor the annual passes that cover other parts of the forest.
“These sites clearly meet the requirements of the law,” he said.
Nonetheless, the Forest Service is now working with the concessionaire to come up with a system that will provide affordable access for locals.
The Payson Ranger District used Forest Service stimulus money to build the toilets and day-use areas, but then sought a way to maintain the sites despite the district’s cash-strapped budget.
The Payson Ranger District relies on a private concessionaire to run most of its developed campgrounds. Forest officials also asked the concessionaire to take over management of six day-use areas along the East Verde River. However, many local residents complained when fee envelopes suddenly showed up in the new parking areas.
The Forest Service recently built the toilets, paved the parking areas and banned camping in response to local complaints in the wake of the Water Wheel Fire, that nearly consumed Beaver Creek and Whispering Pines two years ago.
That fire started across the road from an informal camping area. Residents say they were finding abandoned campfires in the area after hoards of campers went home. Residents also worried that campers and visitors would pollute the river and therefore the water table from which many settlements draw their drinking water.
The day-use sites along the East Verde already have pay stations for people to leave up to $8 if they park in the paved areas and then hike up the stream.
The concessionaire operating most of the campgrounds in the area agreed to collect the fee and maintain the new day-use sites, which includes periodically pumping out the vault toilets.
The concessionaire’s contract to run the campgrounds comes up for renewal this year. In a request for proposals, the Tonto National Forest included operation of the day-use areas and a host of popular trailheads, most of which have trash cans and portable toilets that require maintenance.
Tonto Forest Recreation Planner Greg Schuster recently put out a call for public comments on the plan to start charging the day-use fees, saying while the Forest Service charges no fee at all on 98 percent of its lands and two-thirds of developed recreation areas, the Granger-Thye Act of 1950 nonetheless allows the Forest Service to contract with fee-charging private concessionaires.
However, Benzar insisted that the Forest Service broke the law by imposing fees on the day-use areas without going through any of the legally required procedures to get public comments and demonstrate that the fees pay for the maintenance of specific facilities.
She objected that the request for proposals dramatically increased the number of sites the concessionaire will administer and therefore needed to go through a more elaborate and comprehensive process.
She said the prospectus adds seven picnic sites, one Native American historic site, and four trailheads.
The proposal has also triggered a complicated debate about the cost of various annual passes, especially for people who want to use both the facilities operated by the private concessionaire and Forest Service’s public sites — including boat launching ramps and campgrounds at Roosevelt, Saguaro, Canyon, Apache and other lakes.
The private concessionaire would have to continue to honor the Golden Age and Golden Access passports, which give seniors a 50 percent reduction on fees.
The prospectus also says that the private concessionaire must provide for an affordable, annual pass to use the day-use sites.
Benzar maintains that the law doesn’t actually allow private contractors to set up their own, separate pass system.
Schuster’s letter explained that “to minimize confusion” the Tonto Pass program will not be used on the Payson Ranger District — since most of the sites here are operated by the private concessionaire.
That pass allows people unlimited access to all Forest Service-operated sites for a flat, annual fee.
Benzar said that provision means people must pay more money to gain access to the Tonto National Forest than to any other expanse of public lands in the country.
“If the Payson District concessionaire is allowed to establish their own day-use pass, that will make at least six types of fees or passes to keep track of in order to commit recreation on the Tonto National Forest,” said Benzar.
Those passes include the America the Beautiful annual pass, a $15 upgrade to that pass to allow use of the marinas and boat ramps on the Salt River lakes, the pass for use of the privately run campgrounds, campground fees charged at Forest Service-owned campgrounds and the proposed day-use pass for the privately run sites on the East Verde.
“This does not add up to minimizing confusion,” she concluded.
Benzar said the plan to let a private contractor charge fees for parking at trailheads seems like an especially blatant violation of the law that bans charging for access to public lands.
The trailheads listed on the proposal on which the private concessionaire might charge fees includes Horton Creek, Derrick, Fossil Springs, Two-Sixty, See Canyon and Pine.
Those trailheads almost all connect to a network of others and so provide access to a great swath of public lands.