Public land managers and other officials are considering more restrictions of recreation activities to curb abuse of the vast Tonto National Forest just north of the East Valley.
The 2.9 million acres of Sonoran Desert beyond Mesa and Scottsdale are activity hot spots where thousands flock each week to hike, bike, sightsee, camp, drive off-road vehicles, shoot firearms and party day and night.
Each year, though, the East Valley’s population growth puts more environmental strain on the land.
And more conflicts are occurring among the various types of recreational uses, said Mesa City Councilman Rex Griswold.
Griswold is the city’s representative with Friends of the Tonto, a group working with the U.S. Forest Service to deal with user impact issues.
"Places (in the East Valley) that used to be hunting grounds are now housing developments. The Tonto Forest is the last big open space we have," Griswold said. "We have to be protective of it."
The challenge is finding a balance between protecting the land and giving the public adequate use, said Art Wirtz, chief ranger for the Tonto’s 440,000-acre Mesa District.
Thornier issues involve what Forest Service officials call "extreme" forms of recreation — mainly involving offroad vehicles and firearms.
Shooting has been banned across 80,000 acres of forest closest to growing residential developments in east Mesa, Apache Junction and north Scottsdale areas.
Still, stray bullets whiz near neighborhoods and other forest users, and there’s also a trash problem when abandoned household appliances and computers are used as targets and then left in the forest, Wirtz said.
Tens of thousands of additional acres are closed to offroad vehicles. Much of that land was burned a few months ago by the Cave Creek Complex wildfire, which spread to half of the Tonto’s 600,000-acre Cave Creek District north of Scottsdale.
The Rolls and Sycamore Creek areas about 10 miles north of Mesa have not been hit by wildfires. But environmental damage from years of heavy use by off-road vehicles has Tonto officials considering tough restrictions, Wirtz said.
The Sycamore Creek area also is popular for other troublesome uses that restrictions could reduce: Rave parties and drag racing.
"It’s not always a familyfriendly area because of those activities," said Tammy Pike, the Tonto’s trails and off-road motor vehicle use coordinator. Alcohol and drug use are often involved, officials said.
Some off-road enthusiasts who don’t want to see the problems lead to a ban on their sport have formed Friends of the Sycamore. The group is meeting with the Forest Service to explore alternatives.
Some off-roaders have earned their notorious reputation for flouting the rules and displaying a disregard for nature, said Mesa resident Sandee McCullen, a leader of the Arizona OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle) Coalition.
But more of them understand they’ll lose popular riding areas unless they act responsibly, she said.
"Education is the solution," she said. "Some people still don’t want to get educated. They just want to play. But that attitude of ‘catch me if you can’ is changing."
Tempe resident Rich Smith, a Friends of the Sycamore leader, said offroaders would be willing to accept restrictions and fees if it means adding facilities such as parking lots, staging areas and signs at Sycamore Creek.
"A lot of people don’t know (the area) is part of a national forest. They think it’s just some place out in the desert nobody really cares about," Smith said.
If they see user-friendly amenities added, "they’ll get the message that it’s not a place to misbehave," he said.
The proposal is similar to what all types of Tonto users are asking for: "They all want their own trails," Pike said.
Off-roaders want exclusive areas. Mountain bikers want trails set aside only for bikers. Equestrians want trails where they and their horses won’t have to contend with mountain bikers and motorized vehicles.
The tight budgets Forest Service officials expect for the foreseeable future are going to make it difficult to satisfy such requests, Pike said.
Protecting the Tonto’s terrain in times of limited funding may demand more user fees and gating of some areas to control use, Wirtz said.
Tonto officials don’t want to rule by decree — they’ll bring the public into the
decisionmaking process, he said.
"We want people to understand that forest management isn’t just about limiting access," Wirtz said. "It doesn’t eliminate valid recreational uses. It’s about stopping inappropriate and illegal uses. That benefits everyone."