There will be a lot less room to play in one of the north East Valley’s most popular recreation areas for the next year or more.
Closures or tight restrictions on access are being put into effect on almost half of the Tonto National Forest’s 600,000-acre Cave Creek District to allow for environmental restoration of forest lands burned by recent wildfires.
Except during hot summer months, the forest areas north and east of Scottsdale, Carefree and Cave Creek typically see a few thousand users each week, said Kelly Jardine, the district recreation officer.
"We’re going to have to keep those people in a much smaller area" until the U.S. Forest Service decides the burned lands are sufficiently recovered, Jardine said.
Tonto officials estimated that will mean closures or use restrictions for at least a year in most areas, but as long as three to four years in some of the most badly damaged sites.
Forest Service hydrologist Gran Loomis said fire damage has raised the threat for more torrential floods like one that occurred Aug. 9 in the Cave Creek District and swept away and killed a 7-year-old girl.
The Cave Creek Complex fire, the second-largest wildfire in Arizona history, scorched almost 250,000 acres in the district in late June and early July. It followed the Bart and St. Claire fires, which together burned about 17,000 acres.
Almost all of the acreage is being closed, although some roads that run through burned areas will remain open, including routes to the Verde River, Bartlett Lake and Horseshoe Lake.
But half of an 80,000-acre expanse close to Scottsdale and Carefree that includes favorite destinations for offroad motor vehicle enthusiasts and equestrians will be offlimits, Jardine said.
The area regularly draws hundreds of members of local horse-riding clubs, said Sara Goodnick, president of Arizona State Horsemans Association, who lives near the Tonto land.
"It broke my heart when I heard about the fires. . . . It’s definitely a big loss for the horse people," Goodnick said.
Jean Anderson said she and many of her 75 or so fellow Cave Creek Saddle Club members plan to help the Forest Service in rehabilitating burned lands so trails can be opened as soon as possible.
Off-road motor vehicle groups will do the same, said Scottsdale resident Dan Scheske, a leader of the Arizona ATV Riders.
The Arizona Trail Riders, which has more than 150 Valley members, already is working with Tonto officials to get the word out to off-roaders about the closures and direct them to alternative riding areas, said Jeff Gursh, the group’s vice president.
Tammy Pike, who manages off-road vehicle activity for the district, said she expects most riders to be patient about the closures.
Most of the rehab work will be left to nature, said Tonto biologist Todd Willard.
It would to be too costly for the Forest Service to do extensive treatments in such a vast burn area, he said.