New Tonto Fee Plan Does Not Solve The Problem

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We welcome the Tonto National Forest’s willingness to reconsider the potentially illegal fee slapped on use of day-use areas and trailheads operated by private contractors.

However, we hope that the slapped-together interim solution doesn’t become permanent next year when the Forest Service awards a new, multi-year contract to a private contractor to manage campgrounds and day-use areas in the Payson Ranger District.

We are not really happy with even the interim solution as it does not appear to be a real solution. It still imposes fees on people who want to use the forest.

Alas, somehow the Forest Service always manages to drive you nuts, even when you agree with their goals and sympathize with their dilemmas.

We certainly appreciate Tonto National Forest’s energy and creativity in snagging spare Forest Service money to provide parking areas and toilets along Houston Mesa Road. Irresponsible campers there very nearly burned down Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines a couple of years ago. Escapees from the Valley still routinely leave their garbage, waste and smoldering fires along the precious waterway.

So we were relieved when the Forest Service permanently banned unrestricted camping along the river and put in the parking areas and toilets. There should not be camping in areas close to homes. There is plenty of forest land for campers that do not infringe on people’s homes.

But then the pay envelopes showed up in the newly paved sites — and even worse, at popular trailheads. That’s because the Forest Service asked the private contractors who already operate most of the campgrounds in the area to take over maintenance of the trailheads and day-use areas. Lots of locals reacted with indignant irritation.

The Forest Service and the contractor absorbed the criticism and have now proposed a partial compromise: A $15 annual pass for day-use areas and trailheads maintained by the contractor.

Now, we’re still not sure that’s legal. Judges have ruled the Forest Service can’t impose fees that limit access to public lands.

Fees must cover direct costs, not effectively tax people to use their own land. Charging people to park at a trailhead on the pretext that someone has to periodically pump the toilet and empty the trash comes perilously close to charging for access.

But let’s set that aside for the moment. Let’s assume that four lawyers dancing on the head of a pin could make the case that the day-use and trailhead fees don’t cross the line. In that case, we’d make one additional suggestion. The $15 annual fee does offer locals unlimited access, but we don’t think that people who invest in an $85 forest pass should have to pay an extra $15 to use facilities built with taxpayer dollars and taxpayer-owned land.

Surely, the Forest Service can find a way to sweeten the contract for the concessionaire next year so the private group will accept the public pass for use of those trailheads and day-use areas.

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