Soon, visitors could pay $12 a day to access the river at the Flowing Springs and East Verde day-use areas outside Payson.
Payson Ranger Matt Paciorek and Recreation Program Manager Greg Schuster came to the Payson Town Council meeting on Sept. 23 to explain how the move would benefit the town.
And if residents don’t like the idea, they still have time to weigh in on the proposed fees by Oct. 31.
Paciorek said users have asked the Forest Service to upgrade the amenities. These include better parking, ramadas and toilets.
“Currently we don’t have funding to improve the level of amenities there,” said Paciorek.
If one of the toilet facilities fails, the Tonto Forest does not have the budget to bring it back online, he said.
Schuster and his recreation staff cover thousands of acres of forest in the Payson Ranger District, but he said those two spots cause the biggest headache.
“They spend a disproportionate amount of time caring for those sites,” he said.
This dilemma isn’t new. The Forest Service has struggled to control trash, bathroom clean-up and parking damage for years.
Back in 2012, Recreation Program Manager Chelsea Muise created a cadre of officially sanctioned volunteers that regularly went out to cover cleaning duties to supplement staff’s efforts.
Muise also implemented the Pack it In, Pack it Out program for visitors on summer holidays. Her volunteers set up two container-sized dumpsters at the north and south end of Payson. Signs directed drivers coming off the Rim and out of the forest to drop off trash. Throughout the weekend, volunteers wandered popular campsites to educate campers about the program and hand out trash bags.
The program has since lost steam, but the amount of trash left by visitors remains. Paciorek and Schuster said the pandemic has caused visitation to the Tonto to explode. The Forest Service just doesn’t have enough resources to cover its recreational needs, so the Tonto Forest has recommended the $12 fee to cover the needs of the Flowing Springs and East Verde access.
The two Forest Service officials reassured the council 95% of the fees collected at these recreation sites will get invested back into amenities.
“We can save more of our staff time that will free up time for other projects,” said Schuster.
The fees would also bring the Tonto Pass program to Payson, said Schuster.
The Tonto Pass program is an annual pass between $60 and $80 that provides access to recreation sites that charge a fee. The pass holder and three adults can visit per person fee areas using the pass.
If a visitor does not pay the fee or display a Tonto Pass, the fine is $100.
Right now, the Tonto Pass is only valid in the southern part of the Tonto National Forest, under the Mesa Ranger District. The Payson Ranger District does not participate.
If the public is interested in commenting on the proposed fee structure, please reach out to Greg Schuster by calling 480-292-0291 or by emailing TontoRecreationComments@usda.gov.