The Tonto National Forest has abandoned a controversial proposal to convert the Houston Mesa Horse Camp into a camp for off-roaders.
However, the Payson Ranger District still plans to bar camping within 200 feet of certain stretches of the East Verde River, as well as portions of Tonto, Christopher and Webber creeks.
The plan would also establish three staging areas where off-roaders could park cars and trailers and access off-road trails. The three proposed areas include a former landfill just south of Pine, a site in Mayfield Canyon off FR 433 in Star Valley and a site near the Jim Jones Shooting Range, 2.5 miles south of Payson off Highway 87.
The Payson Ranger District will spend the next month developing an environmental assessment of the modified plan, using a grant from the state’s off-road vehicle licensing fee. The timeline calls for a 30-day review period in October and a month-long public comment period in November.
The plan could take effect in March of next year, according to the scoping report for the Payson Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Project released last week.
The initial version of the plan to accommodate soaring off-road use in the district proposed converting the lightly used Houston Mesa Horse Camp into a campground oriented toward off-roaders. The camping sites are already designed to accommodate trailers, which would have made the conversion easy.
Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Angie Elam originally proposed the conversion of the horse camp because of the relatively light use. The regular Houston Mesa Campground across the road gets about 300,000 campers annually, while the horse campsite attracts about 3,000.
However, people who either use the horse camp or live nearby offered up an outpouring of opposition in several public sessions and a flood of letters and comments on the original plan. They said the region should do more to attract horse riders and publicize the campground. Moreover, nearby homeowners said the Forest Service had originally offered the horse camp as a buffer zone between the campgrounds and the nearby residential areas.
Faced with the storm of opposition, Elam dropped the conversion of the horse camp from further consideration.
“The ranger district does not have a developed OHV campground. The opportunity to convert the Houston Mesa Equestrian Camp into an OHV campground was explored. However, due to overwhelming sentiment from the community identified in this scoping process, this component of the analysis has been removed from consideration.”
The effort to protect the streams while providing greater control of off-roaders dovetails with the Tonto National Forest’s consideration of an overall Travel Management Plan, intended to sharply restrict cross-country off-road travel and prevent the explosion of ORV use from damaging streams, archaeological sites, wildlife and other values.
Tonto Forest’s Travel Management Plan will bar cross-country travel except for three open areas totaling about 1,400 acres and hunters retrieving animals they’ve killed. The plan leaves open about 5,000 miles of dirt roads and trails in the 3,000-acre forest, which remains one of the most visited forests in the nation.
Off-road use has increased four-fold in the past 30 years. This prompted Congress to order all the nation’s national forests to control cross-country travel. Off-roaders who tear up hills for a thrill can quickly create erosion that carves gullies that fill streams with sediment. Some 90 percent of Arizona’s riparian areas have been destroyed or degraded in the past century, although they remain vital to most wildlife and to the region’s water supply.
The main thrust behind the Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Project focused on protecting the heavily used and increasingly abused streams in the area. However, the controversy about the horse camp dominated the initial discussion.
The proposal now focuses on development of the three staging areas and a ban on camping and off-roaders on the river banks, which will effectively eliminate a string of the region’s most popular, undeveloped camping opportunities.
“As a result of a high level of unmanaged use, streams and riparian areas are being heavily impacted.
“The impacts of OHV-based camping along streamside corridors includes vegetation trampling/destruction, soil compaction and erosion, degradation of stream banks, improper human waste disposal, high volumes of garbage and other negative impacts. The streams are used not only for traditional water play, but also for cleaning dishes, bathing, human waste disposal, dumping trash, gray water disposal and as a non-potable water source,” the scoping report concluded.
The proposal would ban camping within 200 feet of the center of the stream. A similar ban on camping along Tonto Creek played a key role in protecting the stream.
The ban on overnight camping and OHV use would include:
— Christopher Creek through See Canyon
— East Verde River at Flowing Springs, Verde Glen, Washington Park and both First and Second Crossings.
— Tonto Creek at Bear Flat and Highway 260 north to the Fish Hatchery.
— Webber Creek
The creation of the three staging areas with easy access to off-road trails and roads would hopefully divert use away from the vulnerable streams.
The proposed staging and parking areas for off-roaders include:
— South Pine: A capped landfill less than a mile south of Pine accessed from Highway 87 and Forest Road 1006 that’s now a “large barren lot.”
— Mayfield Canyon: This area six miles east of Payson on Highway 260 lies off Mayfield Canyon Road (FR 433). It provides easy access to multiple 4x4 roads, including Houston Mesa Loop and Pyeatt Draw.
— Jim Jones: Forest Road 208 connects with Highway 87 about 2.5 miles south of Payson. The staging area would be about 1.5 miles down that road — about one mile from the Jim Jones Shooting Range. FR 208 continues for another 10 miles beyond the shooting range and connects to many other 4x4 roads.