A Forest Service plan to convert the Houston Mesa Horse Camp into a campground and staging area for off-road vehicle enthusiasts has spurred a stampede of opposition.
The Payson Ranger District has proposed turning the lightly used, reservations-only horse camp off Houston Mesa Road just outside of Payson into a camp that caters to people who haul their off-road vehicles up from the Valley and elsewhere. The plan includes three dirt parking lots where people can unload ORVs from trailers and leave their cars and trucks parked while they zip off down various dirt roads and trails.
The OHV staging areas could include one spot near the Payson Event Center, another between Payson and Star Valley and a third site just south of Pine off Highway 87.
An extended comment period on the plan closed on May 15. However, the Payson Ranger District will hold a community forum on the proposal from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. on May 23 in the Julia Randall Elementary School cafeteria. That session will come immediately before another community forum from 6 to 8:30 p.m. in the same place on the proposed overhaul of the Tonto National Forest plan.
Mary Little, a horsewoman who worked to establish the Houston Mesa Horse Camp in 1998, said, “I understand the OHV people wanting a place to ride their quads — and I understand where the horse people are. But I’m very concerned that the staging areas are going to affect a lot of the surrounding neighborhoods. The Forest Service says the plan is transparent, but it’s been kind of difficult to get any information. I know they don’t want to cause an uproar with the OHV riders, but the Forest Service also needs to protect the forest.”
The shift from horses to OHV riders represents the Forest Service’s latest effort to cope with the avalanche of off-road vehicle use.
Congress ordered all the forests in the country to come up with a travel management plan to keep quads and other vehicles from heading off cross-country, which not only disturbs wildlife, but leads to dramatic increases in erosion that can smother streams and springs in silt.
In 2011, the Tonto National Forest finally came out with a plan to bar cross-country travel and designate more than 5,000 miles of dirt roads in the Tonto Forest for off-road vehicles, including about 1,000 miles in the Payson Ranger District. That would mean putting on maps some 1,200 miles of the informal trails created by off-road users and shutting down about 100 miles of existing roads that have created problem with erosion, wildlife or archeological sites. However, off-roaders would have to stick with the expanded road network and stay off of the informal trails and cross-country routes.
The draft version of the travel management plan would have created four off-road areas totaling some 1,400 acres in the 3-million-acre forest, including a large area between Payson and Phoenix.
Surveys show the number of off-roaders grew from 5 million to 51 million between 1972 and 2000. That includes about 1.1 million Arizona residents, most of them living in the Valley.
The travel management spurred heavy opposition almost three years ago, which prompted Tonto Forest to order an environmental assessment of the proposed road network. Officials say they expect to release the latest version of that overall plan sometime later this summer.
In the meantime, the Payson Ranger District proposed to create the OHV camp on Houston Mesa and the three off-road staging areas.
Quickly and quietly released, the plan drew opposition.
District 1 Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin urged the Forest Service to gather more input before moving forward. Her objections included questions about the accuracy of the maps released with the proposal, concerns about the lack of consultation with the county and the impact on various county easements, the distance from the staging areas and the connecting off-road routes. She asked the Forest Service to provide any studies or estimates to indicate whether the change in the campground designation and the added OHV staging areas will increase off-road traffic on roads near and through communities.
“I would like to register an objection to the short, 30-day comment period allowed for a proposed action of such far-reaching and significant impact to the custom, culture and economic well-being of the residents of Gila County.”
The proposal could offer both benefits and problems for Payson, given the large number of off-roaders who live in the Valley that could end up bringing their wallets and their loud, dust-stirring off-road vehicles to Rim Country. Maricopa County already limits off-roading in an effort to prevent the billows of dust that have contributed significantly to the Valley’s air pollution problems. Moreover, most of the surrounding National Forests have completed their travel management plans, which could end up funneling even more off-road riders to Rim Country.
Off-roaders in 2002 provided a $4.2 billion boost to the state economy, according to a study by researchers from Arizona State University. Spending on their jaunts by those off-roaders supported an estimated 36,000 jobs and generated $187 million in state tax revenues.
The study estimated that OHV recreation supported 1,322 jobs in Gila County, generated $121 million in expenditures and $4.2 million in state revenues.
Horse-based recreation in Arizona generates an estimated an estimated $1 billion in economic impact in Arizona, according to a 2001 study by the Arizona Horsemen’s Association. An estimated 48,000 to 64,000 residents own about 170,000 horses they ride for pleasure. That adds up to about $10,000 per horse-owning household, the study concluded.
Starting as a settlement where cowboys brought cattle for the spring roundups from a wide region, Rim Country has a long, proud horseback riding tradition.
A national study concluded that the horse industry contributes $39 billion to the economy nationally. Some 9 million horses live in the U.S., including 4 million used in recreation.
Little said the Houston Mesa Horse Camp would get a lot more use if the gates weren’t locked most the time, waiting for advanced registration. She said Payson could reap substantial benefits from attracting more riders if people knew about the existing horse camp. She’s also worried that drawing a lot more off-roaders from out of the area and concentrating them in staging grounds near existing neighborhoods will cause problems.
“A lot of the quad riders who live in Payson are excellent. When they see a horse, they stop and shut off their engines. We feel very comfortable with the OHV riders that live in Payson. It’s the idea that the Tonto National Forest is wanting to bring everyone into the area — it’s the ones that are inconsiderate. You should see all the trash. They drop diapers in streams. These are the people who are the inconsiderate riders who affect the communities.”