After a decade of threats, the Tonto National Forest is moving to shut down a 167-resident mobile home park overlooking Roosevelt Lake.
The Forest Service has decided that the decades-long lease of the land for the park filled mostly with trailers owned by vacation homeowners violates its policy barring exclusive private use of public lands.
However, the operators of the trailer park say the action will shut down the only sewage treatment operation in the area and could dry up business at the marina that represents one of the few economic enclaves on the southern shore of the lake.
The people with mobile homes in the park have until January 2013 to move them, but many of the homes are so old they don’t meet modern standards necessary to relocate to another park, said David Buckmaster, the leaseholder.
“It doesn’t surprise anybody. We started having people sign disclosure forms in 2000, but it’s going to have a huge economic impact on local businesses. They’re all scared to death.”
Tonto Basin District Head Ranger Kelly Jardine said the 21-acre lease has existed for more than 30 years, but in about 1995, administrators concluded the lease conflicted with the Forest Plan.
“The Forest Service policy is to deny exclusive use or preferential use of the national forest and to provide accommodations in a manner that ensures availability of the facilities for general use.”
Jardine said the Forest Service has no other plans for the use of the land, one of the few places where people can live close to the shores of Roosevelt Lake between Globe and Payson.
The residents have one more year to move out, he said. “There’s really no way we could issue a (new) permit under current regulations. Of course, it’s a difficult situation for the homeowners. The Forest Service sympathizes with the situation that they’re being put into with the uncertainty and the disruption in their life that results from this change. So we’re sympathetic to that.”
Buckmaster said he hopes many residents can qualify for help from a state fund that will help them move their mobile homes. The fund will pay up to $5,000 to move a trailer to a new location within 50 miles. However, many of the trailers date back to before new standards went into effect in 1976, which means owners can’t move them to new parks and may end up abandoning them.
Buckmaster said the park pays about $10,000 to $20,000 annually in fees to the Forest Service and provides a $7,000-a-month sewage treatment operation that also serves many local businesses and the sheriff’s substation and the nearby marina. The park charges rent of $190 per month, plus a $65 monthly fee for handling sewage. Overall, the park generates about $400,000 in revenues annually, said Buckmaster.
Shari Harper, who manages the park with her husband, said one economic study showed that the park interjected $2.5 million annually into the local economy as a result of spending by the residents.
She said only eight to 10 residents live there full time, the rest come up on the weekend. The park also operates 10 RV spaces, which rarely fill up.
“It’s not about losing homes, it’s 167 families that come out here to vacation here — and they bring $2.5 million from outside Gila County into the local economy. For the Forest Service it’s all about public use. But there’s a lot of public use happening here in a very green way. It’s just like all the rest of government, they want to throw away a cash cow —which is us.”
Buckmaster said the Forest Service invited him to apply for a new lease that would comply with its guidelines, which would mean operating some business open to the general public like a campground or RV park.
However, he said the area doesn’t get enough visitors to make a go of a private campground or overnight RV spaces. He noted that the Forest Service has developed about 1,200 RV spaces around the lake, which virtually never fill up.
“I’ve been in this type of business most of my life. I don’t think a person could get funding to build a hotel and couldn’t get the business to make a go of it. We have 10 full hookups for RV spaces and our year-round occupancy is about 6 percent. If we had an RV park and campground, maybe 25 days a year we could really fill up, the other 250 days we’d do nothing but try to pay the bills on the wastewater plant.”
He said the Forest Service did the same thing five years ago to shut down a small park near the Apache Lake Marina.
Dianne DeMeyere, who had a trailer at Apache Lake before that shutdown, wrote Buckmaster a letter of “condolence and outrage.”
“My outrage is because of what happened at Apache Lake. The ‘government line’ there was also that it is unfair to allow such a beautiful spot to be enjoyed by a small group of people, and that it should be available to the public. As of the last time we were there — a year ago — it had been five years since the residents were booted out and the Forest Service would still not allow the campground to be redeveloped. What was once a bustling campground, full of citizens who took pride in the area and employees who sacrificed to work in the wilderness became a ghost town struggling to exist.
“The Forest Service shows no knowledge of the difficulty getting to Roosevelt and especially Apache, and seems to think that hordes of RVers will brave those roads for a weekend. Also, according to an Apache Lake employee, they will not allow redevelopment until the land is restored to its ‘original condition’ —including trees that take 20 years to grow,” she wrote.
The Forest Service has no process that would allow Buckmaster to appeal the decision not to renew the lease, said Jardine.
“There really isn’t an appeals process, other than an appeal to their congressional representative.”
Buckmaster said he has appealed to the state’s U.S. senators and Congressman Paul Gosar for help. He has also explored the idea of winning a reprieve by providing wastewater treatment services for the Forest Service visitors center, which currently gets its water from eight miles away and trucks out its waste.
“We would love to be a good neighbor and stay in business and allow them to use our systems. I’m not going to have a war with the Forest Service,” said Buckmaster.
“It’s not really a fight, but we’re definitely looking at our options,” said Buckmaster.
“It doesn’t do you any good to fight the government. You never win if you fight. But we’re trying to negotiate something that will allow us to still be around. But, gosh, there’s only so much that can be done without some kind of congressional intervention.”
Still, he doesn’t sound hopeful.
“Whenever decisions are made in big government, they’re way up the food change — so it’s kind of hard to change because you don’t quite know where to go to change them.”