Tonto National Forest wants to overhaul its whole recreation program to eliminate a $900,000 budget shortfall.
Forest planners will hold a meeting in Payson on Jan. 24 to help determine whether people would rather see the forest shut down recreation sites, substantially raise fees or turn more sites over to private contractors.
Tonto National Forest Planner Ken Born said “we have eight meetings scheduled to get some preliminary feedback. We’re looking at how to make changes this spring and through the summer. Then we’ll release a proposal for people to react to in the June to August time frame. We hope to implement any changes beginning in January of 2014.”
The two-hour Payson meeting will take place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 24 in Room 301 of Gila Community College. The Forest Service will also host a meeting at the Tonto Basin Elementary School at 445 S. Old Highway 188 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Feb. 6.
The 3-million-acre Tonto National Forest gets nearly 6 million visitors annually and spends some $5.5 million each year to maintain a network of campgrounds, picnic areas and things like boat ramps in the chain of reservoirs along the Salt River — including Roosevelt Lake.
Born said the Forest Service wants suggestions from residents on the various options. The Forest Service could close enough facilities to make up for the roughly 20 percent shortfall in the current recreation budget. Alternatively, the Forest Service could raise the fees enough to bring in an extra $900,000. Finally, the Forest Service could turn most of the sites over to private contractors, which would submit bids for contracts to run the campgrounds and boat launching facilities that would include fees high enough to cover their costs and return a profit.
In the Payson Ranger District, private contractors already operate most of the seven developed campgrounds.
Those campgrounds generally charge fees a little higher than the fees charged in Forest Service-operated campgrounds.
A private contractor also operates several controversial fee-charging picnic areas along Houston Mesa Road near Water Wheel. The Forest Service used a grant to pave several small parking areas and put in vault toilets, which must be regularly pumped out. The Forest Service authorized the concessionaire to charge an $8 parking fee in the new lots for people who don’t buy an annual pass.
The Western Slopes Coalition has filed a lawsuit to block collection of those fees, citing federal laws and court cases to bar charging people fees not directly related to maintenance of facilities that would tend to restrict access to public lands.
Born said the Tonto National Forest hasn’t yet settled on any of the options or figured out which areas might see an increase in fees.
The great bulk of visitation to developed recreation sites involves the campgrounds and boat launching facilities on the Salt River lakes — including Roosevelt, Apache, Canyon and Saguaro lakes.
Born said many of the most popular facilities at least break even. However, the study might result in a decision to close some sites in places like Roosevelt Lake to concentrate use on fewer facilities, thereby reducing operational costs.
Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth said in a release, “National economic conditions and mounting financial demands underscore the inadequacy of traditional funding sources to meet growing population needs and recreation expectations. We must not only engage the public to explore their expectations and needs, we must also expand our program delivery capacity funding to utilize user fees, volunteers, grant programs, private donations and partners in the nonprofit sector.
“Our forest recreation program is one of the largest and most complex in the U.S. National Forest system and requires a wide variety of interests and perspectives to be involved. We look forward to partnering with our recreation visitors in developing a sustainable recreation program for the future.”