Time to call in the cavalry.
Time to find some partners.
Time to try some creative solutions.
That’s the impression that emerged from the Tonto National Forest’s recent public meeting focused on whether it should increase the fees charged to use campgrounds, day use sites and boat ramps.
Thanks to a steady decline in “appropriated” money going to operate such facilities, the Tonto Forest has developed an annual deficit of between $600,000 and $900,000. Fees paid by users have remained consistent, but Forest Service funding has dropped steadily.
The meeting offered up several options:
Shut down facilities and cut off public access.
Raise fees charged to use those facilities.
Turn more sites over to private contractors.
And finally: Seek more partnerships.
We bet we know what the Forest Service will do. Based on past history, the forest managers will stage a series of meetings, wander off to ponder the topic for a year, then jack up recreation fees. Odds are, they’ll not only boost fees for developed campgrounds, but also for trailheads, parking areas and other sites. This will trigger a lawsuit, which will cost more money and cause more delay.
Now, we do sympathize with the dilemma the Tonto faces. A handful of rangers must try to protect 3 million acres of land from about 6 million visitors annually.
All too many of those visitors think nothing of driving straight up the side of a hill, discarding diapers and beer cans, and wandering away like idiots from their untended campfires.
The fire that nearly destroyed Beaver Valley a few years ago illustrates the terrible danger posed by such fools.
Forest managers remain trapped in a no-win situation. They must allow access to public lands — but lack the resources to protect that precious resource.
That’s why we hope the Tonto Forest will seek much more creative partnerships.
For instance, why not let Payson operate the Verde River corridor as a wilderness park? The town could perhaps float revenue bonds to make improvements secured with entrance fees. The town could integrate those vital tourist-pleasing areas into its efforts to promote tourism regionally. The area already has some good campgrounds and day use areas and benefits from weekly stocking all summer long by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Payson is building the Blue Ridge pipeline the whole length of the river corridor. Surely, a partnership with the Forest Service could result in much more intensive and effective management of one of the most healthy, diverse and appealing riparian areas in the state — while providing Payson with a wonderful outdoor amenity.
Alas, we’re not optimistic the current review will result in a creative approach. After all, the Forest Service continues to struggle with how to manage even Fossil Creek, which is a precious refuge for native fish that draws 90,000 visitors annually. Clearly, Fossil Creek needs the level of protection, patrol and development provided in a federal wildlife refuge or a national park. Instead, it languishes in the land of eternal study — with no more creative solution than to cut off access.
Still, we hope the Forest Service will think outside the box in the course of the current review — and that Payson and other partners will offer some creative solutions.
The town, Gila County, groups like Payson Packers, Payson Flycasters, Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation and other outdoor-oriented groups remain natural allies. When it comes to protecting the forest — without cutting off access — we have more at stake than anyone. We’re all saddled up and eager.
Time for the Forest Service to call in the cavalry.