A new, $15 annual pass will provide unlimited use of the day-use sites along the East Verde River and popular trailheads such as Horton Creek and See Canyon, but the new pass may not calm the critics of fees charged by private companies to use public lands.
Residents can buy the annual pass at the Houston Mesa Campground. The pass only covers the East Verde sites.
The $85 Tonto National Pass provides access to Forest Service operated sites on the 6-million-acre forest, but doesn’t
include sites operated by private contractors. An additional pass would be needed for Payson area recreation sites and national passes also would not be honored, unlike in other national forests and parks.
The contractor, Recreation Resource Management, offered the pass for the East Verde in response to local protests.
The Tonto National Forest last year used grants to put in vault toilets and paved parking at four spots along the East Verde River, including Water Wheel where campers apparently started the fire that nearly consumed Whispering Pines and Beaver Valley two years ago.
The Payson Ranger District then asked
Recreation Resources Management this summer to take over maintenance of the toilets and parking areas and to include those day-use areas in its bid for a large contract to manage most of the campgrounds in the district next year.
Recreation Resource Management quickly put up pay stations at the four new day-use areas and asked for an $8 fee to park at the popular spots.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department stocks rainbow trout into the East Verde at each of those day-use areas, popular with local fishermen and hikers.
The Forest Service also left in place a ban on camping at those sites, to the relief of local residents worried about the possibility that abandoned campfires will spur a wildlife in the surrounding, thickly overgrown forests.
However, the sudden appearances of the self-pay stations at the new day-use areas provoked criticism from many regular users and Payson officials, which prompted the Forest Service to consider alternatives.
The Western Slopes Coalition protested any fees for use of the day-use areas or popular trailheads. The Colorado-based group is waging a national campaign to eliminate or reduce fees for the use of public lands.
The issue arose two months ago when the Tonto National Forest asked for bids from private contractors to manage most of the campgrounds in the Payson Ranger District, since Recreation Resource Management’s contract expires this year. The proposal included the new day-use facilities on the East Verde, plus several of the most popular trailheads in Rim Country.
That proposal triggered protests by the Western Slopes Coalition, and Rim Country residents, which maintained that charging people to park at trailheads will limit access to public lands. A federal judge recently overturned key elements of the Red Rock Pass in Sedona on precisely those grounds. That case was triggered by a ticket issued to a man who parked at the Vultee Arch trailhead.
The Western Slopes Coalition concluded the Tonto National Forest has become one of the most expensive forests in the country for people to use, since they would have to buy both the Tonto Forest Pass and pay separate fees charged by private contractors to access all areas of the forest.
Angie Elam, who recently took over as head ranger for the Payson Ranger District, said the Tonto Forest has now received bids back from several contractors, including Recreation Resource Management.
“We’ve received the bids and we’re working through the analysis of those bids,” she said.
The Tonto Forest will award the bid to one of those contractors before January. Elam declined to discuss details of the initial bids in accordance with the law governing the bidding process. The Forest Service will release details when it’s ready to select one of the bids.