More Recreation Budget Issues: The Tonto

Roosevelt Lake
Roosevelt Lake

Area Description: Roosevelt Lake is a year-round recreation destination location in central Arizona on the Tonto National Forest. A two-hour drive northeast of Phoenix, Roosevelt Lake is the largest of the four Salt River lakes and is nestled in the beautiful Sonoron Desert. The lake’s main attractions are water-based activities such as fishing and boating.Other activities around the lake include wildlife viewing, hiking, and exploring. Roosevelt Lake is situated along Highway 188, which can be reached via Highway 60 from Globe via 87 south of Payson. Highway 60 and 87 can be easily accessed from Phoenix. Cholla Recreation Site is five miles northwest of Roosevelt Dam on Highway 188 and Windy Hill Recreation Site is six miles southeast of Roosevelt Dam on Highway 188

Camping Facilities Provided: Both Windy Hill and Cholla have water-operated restrooms, indoor shower facilities, trash removal, boat ramps, fishing-cleaning station, and handicapped accessible boat landing platforms. Each individual campsite has a ramada, picnic table, and grill. An RV dump station is located across the highway from the Cholla Recreation Site.

Area Features: The Roosevelt Marina, Tonto National Monument, Tonto Basin Ranger District Visitor Center, Apache Trail, and Apache Lake Marina are all popular destinations in the wintertime. Watchable wildlife include geese, ducks, eagles, bighorn sheep, mule, deer, javelina, and quail. Gas, food, propane, phones and post offices are located at Punkin Center and Roosevelt just a few minutes from Windy Hill and Cholla Recreation Sites. A full range of services and amenities can be found in Globe or Payson.

Fee/Permits Required: Permits to camp at Windy Hill or Cholla may be purchased at ant Tonto National Forest office, or at a wide variety of venders in Arizona, including Big 5 Sporting Goods stores, Circle K outlets, and local gas stations. The cost is $6 per vehicle per night plus $4 per watercraft per night. Senior and Access cardholders (for people with disabilities) pay 1/2 price. Senior and Access permits may be purchased at Tonto National Forest offices only.
[Image]: Forest Service Shield.

Accessibility: All facilities are handicap accessible.

Here’s a link to a story about a public meeting that the Tonto held.

The meeting in Payson stems from the rising recreation program deficit on the Tonto Forest. That deficit arose mostly from a decline in the amount of money the Forest Service spends on operating campgrounds and other facilities.

For instance, in 2011 the Tonto National Forest invested about $2.8 million in operating its vast network of campgrounds and other facilities and collected about $2.5 million in fees. That produced a roughly $90,000 surplus in the recreation program.

However, in 2013 the budget projects the Forest Service will spend $2.1 million in “allocated” funds and collect another $2.4 million in fees. That will produce a projected $920,000 deficit in the program — a roughly 20 percent shortfall.

The looming financial crisis prompted the Tonto National Forest to launch a series of public meetings to gather suggestions from citizens on what it should do to close the gap.

Participants wandered around a room at Gila Community College examining poster boards with information about the problem and laying out solutions. The alternatives included shutting down campsites and other facilities, raising fees to wipe out the shortfall, turning more facilities over to private contractors and forming more partnerships to help cover the costs of running the array of facilities.

The Tonto National Forest includes a chain of heavily used reservoirs along the Salt River, including Canyon, Apache, Saguaro and Roosevelt lakes. It also includes a dozen campgrounds and day use areas.

The Payson Ranger District actually serves as a test case for the contemplated changes — especially using private contractors to operate campgrounds. A contractor already operates most of the Forest Service campgrounds in Rim Country and charges only slightly higher fees than Forest Service campgrounds elsewhere. Contractors can generally pay lower wages and provide fewer benefits for employees than the Forest Service, resulting in lower operating costs.

The most popular option on the list proved the formation of local partnerships, with higher fees trailing well behind. Almost no one said they wanted to see the Forest Service save money by shutting down developed sites.

About 41 people attended the three-hour open house. Comments posted on the bulletin boards often focused on an alliance between community groups and the Forest Service.

“Use more community volunteer projects to cut costs,” wrote one citizen.

“Tax outdoor gear, ATVs, fishing gear — and use the money to support recreation,” wrote another.

“Make the East Verde a Town of Payson park,” wrote one participant.

“Make Fossil Creek a National Wildlife Refuge and charge for entry,” suggested another.

“Coordinate with non-profit organizations.”

My questions:

If the FS can’t charge for entry, does it make sense to transfer these heavily used areas to another federal, state or local government who can charge? Or would it be simpler to mess with the Forest Service’s policies legislatively?

Is it so wrong for the FS to charge, due to its own regulations, due to law, or for some philosophical reason?

Should the FS be moved to Interior and these areas rezoned to the Park Service so that these kinds of areas be managed separately and fees charged but that the transfers are bureaucratically simpler?

Is outdoor equipment already taxed? By state or feds? What latitude is there to increase/add taxes?

Finally, I am a senior (although perhaps not senior enough for this benefit) but $3.00 per night (1/2 of 6) seems fairly low compared to other similar opportunities. Perhaps FS, BLM, NPS and FWS should harmonize their rates for a given level of service?

Other thoughts or ideas?

5 thoughts on “More Recreation Budget Issues: The Tonto”

  1. Sharon I notice that you edited out the part of the article where I “sharply challenged” the legality of the Tonto’s current fee program at the Payson meeting. I understand that fees were not the point of your posting, but I’d like to weigh in anyway.

    The Tonto is a poster child for the Forest Service’s effort to continue charging unlimited access and entrance fees as they did under Fee Demo despite the tighter restrictions imposed by FLREA.
    In their maneuverings to try and evade these tighter restrictions, the Tonto has managed to shoot themselves in the foot. They’ve ended up with a system called the Tonto Pass that has pushed up overhead at the very same time it has held down revenue. It’s a lose-lose for the Forest and the public.
    I had a long and very frank conversation with the Tonto’s recreation director just yesterday. I made some suggestions that could reduce overhead, increase revenue, and do it all within the letter of the law with just a few simple changes. She says they are open to my ideas. We’ll see.

    Here is how the Tonto Pass (TP) (sorry their choice of initials not mine) currently works.
    A TP is a piece of 4×9 heavy card stock printed on both sides with a die-cut for a rear-view mirror hanger, bar code on one side and lottery ticket-style scratch-offs on the other. Each one costs $6 or $3 for Senior/Disabled. You buy them in advance and then scratch off the date on which you activate each one. You also need a sticker for each watercraft you have ($4 each) and there is a place to paste those on the pass. Each TP is good for 24 hours. The price is the same whether you use the whole 24 hours (camp) or just sit and fish for an afternoon. If you camp, the price is the same whether you are in a fully developed campground with hot showers or parked on the lakeshore at an undeveloped site. You cannot buy a TP on site, only from one of the business vendors or at a ranger station.
    Since each pass is good for 24 hours, you need one for every night of your stay. One campground has a 6-month stay limit in winter; that’s 180 TPs that get scratched off, displayed, and then thrown away.
    Overhead issues here: the cost of printing such an elaborate pass and vendor commissions to sell it. For the public there is the inconvenience of having to drive back and get one if you didn’t know or forgot that you needed one (or more). And just the sheer waste of paper and ink.
    That’s the basic system. Then there is the annual TP, for frequent or long-term visitors. For that you first need to have an Interagency (America the Beautiful) Pass. It can be the $80 annual version, the $10 Senior version, or the free Disabled or Military versions. This pass will get you into every National Park. It will cover your Adventure Pass, Northwest Forest Pass, Red Rocks Pass, White Mountains Pass, and every other FS or BLM Standard Amenity Fee in the country.
    But it won’t get you onto the Tonto.
    For that you have to “upgrade” it for an additional $15 per year, only available at a ranger station during business hours. If you do that you get a windshield sticker that allows you to park that vehicle, and only that vehicle, for day-use and at the boat launches for a year. It doesn’t cover camping, either developed or dispersed, which still requires a daily pass. If you sell the vehicle with the sticker on it or have to replace the windshield a replacement sticker costs $10.
    The TP, either daily or annual, covers Standard Amenity Fee (day use) sites. It also covers use of the boat ramps, which are Expanded Amenity Fee sites. Campgrounds are also Expanded Amenity Fee sites, but only the daily TP covers those, not the annual one. If you are a snowbird staying all winter and also have a watercraft you need both an annual TP for your boat and a daily TP every day for your campsite. Undeveloped dispersed camping and boat launching at non-developed locations (for which FLREA prohibits the FS from charging a fee – that’s the “illegal” part) also requires a TP.
    Have you got that? (There will be a quiz.)

    Now look at what you get for your TP. At Roosevelt Lake there are well over 1,000 campsites located in half a dozen clusters strung out along the south shore of the lake. Each has paved access roads, campsite furnishings, flush toilets, dumpsters every 50 feet or so, and some have hot showers. A huge investment by the Forest Service you say? Think again. All of that was built by the Bureau of Reclamation in the ’90s when they raised the height of Roosevelt Dam. It was handed to the Forest Service, complete, all they had to do was operate and maintain it. Under the TP system, they are charging only $6 ($3 Sr/Disabled) to camp in some of the most elaborately developed campgrounds I’ve ever seen. On the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto, which is not under the TP system, the private, for-profit concessionaire charges $14-$20 for campgrounds with a lower level of development. On the nearby Prescott NF, agency-operated campgrounds with lesser development go for $10-$18/night.
    The catch is Roosevelt Lake itself. Because it’s at the head of a chain of reservoirs, the water level fluctuates dramatically. It reached full pool behind the newly raised dam in the late ’90s and has never been that high again so far. So much of the development, including many paved multi-lane boat ramps, are high and dry. For some time now occupancy has been miniscule and many of the camping and boating facilities are closed and gated off. The Forest is struggling with whether to rip a lot of perfectly good facilities out or keep them ready to open up and re-activate next time the lake comes up.

    Here are the suggestions I made to the Tonto’s recreation director:
    1) Identify the sites that qualify for Expanded Amenity Fees or Standard Amenity Fees. Install “iron rangers” to collect those fees on site, using standard-issue FS fee envelopes. This would let people pay by their whole length of stay with one envelope instead of needing a new pass every day.
    2) Set the level of Expanded and Standard fees to be comparable to what other Forests in Region 3 are charging. This will require going through the public process defined in FLREA but I would not anticipate any problem; people know they are getting a sweet deal now and won’t be surprised that the party is over.
    3) Drastically reduce the number of dumpsters and consolidate them into locations where people can leave their trash on the way out of the area. Empty them more often in busy periods, less often at slow times. Provide recycling facilities as feasible. (The NPS provides recycling at Tonto National Monument within the same area so it must be possible.) Potentially discontinue the current agency owned and operated trash truck and contract with a local firm for trash service.
    4) Charge a separate Expanded Amenity fee for the hot showers. They never should have been installed in the first place but since they are there people are going to use them. But no one has a right to expect showers to be included in their camping fee at a federal campground.
    5) Drop the Tonto Pass and all fees outside of the Expanded and Standard Amenity sites.
    6) Mothball the high-and-dry facilities in such a way as to preserve them for future use. A time will come when the lake is full again and then they can be opened up and become revenue generators. The environmental damage of building them has been done and no amount of remediation would ever erase their presence. Might as well keep them.

    These suggestions would simplify the whole system, bring it into compliance with the law, reduce agency overhead, increase recreation fee revenue and improve public convenience. I think they would go a long way toward solving their budget problems.

    • “A time will come when the lake is full again.”

      I don’t think there’s any guarantee of that at all – at least, not in human timescales. If the Lake Roosevelt facilities were overbuilt with the expectation of endless water recreation in the middle of a desert, it may well be time to reconsider whether they’re necessary at all. There’s no sense keeping something around in the mere hope that extended droughts aren’t the new normal.

      For example, the NPS has responded to the shrinking of Lake Powell by decommissioning the marina facilities which once existed at Hite, Utah.

      • Even in an era of climate change, a future filling of Roosevelt Lake just from normal weather fluctuations is likely. Maybe less often than previously but it’s bound to happen now and then. In recommending mothballing of facilities rather than removal I was mainly looking at the high cost of demolishing improvements that were built to be permanent, and the impossibility of obliterating all trace of them. I might feel differently in another decade or two but for now I would take a wait and see approach doing the minimum necessary to keep them from permanent damage. They are pretty robustly constructed so that shouldn’t be much. Even at Hite the NPS has not removed the pavement, the toilet building, the ranger station, or the campsites. What was decommissioned was mainly the floating marina facilities, which were no longer floating. I wonder if it was the NPS that did that or the marina concessionaire who couldn’t rent houseboats when there was no lake?

  2. I have one big complaint about the reliance on contract concessionaires on the Mt. Hood, Deschutes, and other forests: They operate only during the busy summer season, when they can count on enough revenue to justify the presence of campground hosts and services. Most of these sites are closed (gated) during the off-season, when I and many others prefer to camp. In these cases, I suggest installing “iron rangers” and charging lower off-season rates. I’d be happy to pay $8 or $10 instead of $16 or $20 or more per night.

  3. Steve, I have seen that used in many places. As an off-season camper, we would usually see some campgrounds on a given district closed, and others with the iron ranger and water off, and the pit toilets open. And the reduced rate, but that might not have been with “concessionaire in the summer” sites.

    I find the divergence in approaches fascinating. At the risk of giving great offense to many dedicated, hard-working people, I wonder whether.. some more standardized approaches might yield more clarity to users and support from the public?


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