Copper Mines, NOT CAMPING, in Tonto National Forest – Why?

PUBLIC LAND Goes PRIVATE and Cherished Winter RV Camping is CLOSED Forever

December 2015 – The beautiful fall colors around Roosevelt Lake Arizona are truly exquisite, and we have taken thousands of photos of the Sonoran Desert in both fall and spring along the Salt River during our RV travels in Arizona. After poking around on this website a bit and rummaging through our photos from last year, I realized I never posted some of my favorites. So here they are, just as lovely now as they were a year ago.

Autumn Leaves Salt River Bush Highway Blue Point Arizona

Autumn splendor along the Salt River in Arizona

But they are bittersweet too, because times are changing. Among these glorious photos, I found images I took last year in Globe and Ray Arizona that evoke a tragedy that’s currently unfolding. A little research into what’s going on has left me with one big question: WHY?

Fall colors in the Sonoran Desert Arizona Salt River

Arizona is filled with gold

Last year while we were camped in the Tonto National Forest, we went on several outstanding hikes that start at some of the trailheads and former camping areas that are sprinkled along the dramatic Bush Highway which runs alongside the Salt River east of Phoenix.

Autumn leaf reflections Salt River Arizona

The Salt River infuses the Sonoran Desert with color and life.

Pebble Beach was one recreation area that used to be very popular for winter camping and boondocking.

Pebble Beach on the Salt River

One of many stunning views hidden behind the “CLOSED” sign blocking car and RV drivers from
parking in the mammoth parking lots at Pebble Beach.

Pebble Beach Campground is a very large recreation area. Not only is there an enormous parking lot lined with dozens of shaded picnic ramadas, but it was built to include both a huge group camping area as well as individual and family camping. There were even campsites with hookups to accommodate multiple hosts, and there were multiple toilet buildings scattered throughout the area.

At one time, Pebble Beach was a very popular winter boondocking snowbird roost.

Pebble Beach Camping Area Tonto National Forest Closed

Storm clouds over Pebble Beach – No more winter camping here!

Sadly, it has been closed to winter use for several years and Tonto National Forest plans to keep it closed and keep all that infrastructure and beauty behind locked gates indefinitely.

Pebble Beach Bush Highway Mesa Arizona Salt River

This cool area at Pebble Beach lay just steps away from winter RV campsites by the picnic ramadas

Tragically, since his arrival in 2012, the supervisor of Tonto National Forest, Neil Bosworth (bio here, contact: nbosworth@fs.fed.us) has systematically closed all the winter camping areas on the Bush Highway.

Some camping areas are open in the summertime, but Arizonans don’t camp in the 120 degree heat of the Sonoran Desert in the summer months! They all go north to the cool mountains and camp at 5,000′ or higher to get out of the heat.

The list of campgrounds and areas that used to be open for winter RV camping is:

  • Pebble Beach Campground (designated campsites, group camping, large enough for 50+ RVs)
  • Goldfield Recreation Area (formerly used for camping and large enough for 50+ RVs)
  • Phon D Sutton (formerly used for camping and large enough for 50+ RVs)
  • Sheep Crossing (day use)

Fortunately for tourists and nature lovers, there is one gorgeous spot that has remained open called the Water Users area. This is a Salt Water River summertime tubing drop-off spot that has several short trails that go down to the river.

Lost in the desert oasis landscapes of Arizona

The Water Users area is available for daytime visits.

The craggy rocks and colorful trees and reflecting water are just sensational.

Salt RIver Arizona in Autumn

I love reflections in the water.

Autumn leaves on Arizona's Salt River

The Salt River (“Rio Salado”)

Across the Bush Highway from Pebble Beach is the much smaller Blue Point day use area, and it is still open. Blue Point has a wonderful hiking trail that runs along the edge of the river. What’s puzzling is that the Sheep Crossing recreation area next door to Blue Point is closed.

Huh? Oh well. We had fun getting reflection shots of the riverbanks.

Salt River Phoenix Arizona

The Blue Point day use area is across from Pebble Beach (closed) and next to Sheep Crossing (closed).

Up on a rocky precipice we saw a great blue heron keeping an eye out for fast moving fish.

Great blue heron Salt River Arizona

Waterbirds love the Salt River

The great blue heron wasn’t the only one fishing. A fisherman was casting his net in the river too.

Fishing on the Salt River

Fishermen love the Salt River. Heck, so do RVers!

The play of the light on his net and the light on the water and clouds was just beautiful.

Starburst over the Salt River in Phoenix Arizona

.

The pretty trees and jagged rock faces along the Salt River lit up in brilliant golden hues every afternoon.

Blue Point in autumn colors on the Salt River in Arizona

Autumn Gold at Blue Point on the Bush Highway

Sadly, over the last few years, the Tonto National Forest has systematically closed all but the tiniest of winter camping areas along the Bush Highway. What’s left (at Coon Bluff) is open to camping only on weekends and is large enough for just 6-7 big rigs.

Last year and the year before, there were times when the one large remaining camping area, Phon D Sutton, had 50 RVs camping there.

With a demand like that, why would Tonto National Forest shut it down along with all the other camping areas that can accommodate hundreds and hundreds of RVs. Why would they leave just a handful of spaces open?

The parking area at Coon Bluff is so tiny that when RVs camp there, they take up most of the parking lot. What’s totally unfair to the locals is that the daytrippers, hunters and fishermen — who all deserve a decent parking spot for their outing in nature too — don’t have room to park their cars!

Sunset Arizona Salt River

The Indoor Generation as well as snowbird winter RVers deserve a chance to enjoy places like this right outside their doorstep during dawn and dusk — especially when the facilities were already built by former leadership that wanted the public to be able to enjoy the unique beauty of the Salt River.

Up until October, 2015, the Forest Service allowed RVers to camp at the Phon D Sutton recreation area which can easily hold 50 big rigs in two enormous parking lots.

Last winter and the winter before it was frequently full of happy winter snowbird RVers, many of whom brought kayaks to enjoy the river, camera gear to photograph the egrets and bald eagles, and musical instruments to make music together.

What a stunning spot that was.

Arizona autumn colors Four Peaks Salt River Bush Highway_

Gorgeous Phon D Sutton offered parking lot dry camping but the views and experiences were unforgettable.

Unfortunately, as of this past October, Phon D Sutton is now closed too.

Phon D Sutton is still open as a day use area, but when we stopped by to check it out a few weeks ago, the whole place was eerily vacant, except for two cars, and there was gang graffiti on the bathroom doors and windows.

Fog Arizona Salt River

When large parking lots and bathrooms for throngs of people have been built so they can enjoy
a view like this, should the facilities be left to rot?

What a shame.

What a waste of good facilities and good money that went into building them.

Fog and mist saguaro cactus Arizona Sonoran Desert

A treasured view at former winter RV roost Phon D Sutton.

Last year I was lucky enough to have some wonderfully close encounters with the wild horses that live along the Salt River while we camped at Phon D Sutton.

Salt River Wild Horse Arizona

What a sight it was as this guy charged towards me.

Salt River Wild horses drinking

Down by the river the wild horses live a peaceful life.

When camping at Phon D Sutton, it was easy to rise in the dark and sneak down to the Salt River at dawn to watch the wild horses getting their morning drink.

Wild horses Salt River Phoenix Arizona

A glorious sunrise, complete with members of the wild horse herd getting a drink.

The Tonto National Forest wants to round up the wild horses and get rid of them!

Luckily, for the moment, protestations from the wild horse loving public have quashed that plan. The wild horses of the Salt River have a huge following and a support network that has fought valiantly and very publicly for them.

Part of their battle included two huge petitions that were signed by thousands. They also filed a lawsuit against Tonto National Forest.

Saguaro Cactus at sunset Arizona

A stunning sunset along the Bush Highway.

Perhaps a similarly passionate outcry from winter snowbird RVers from the north as well as local campers from Arizona would prevent our precious camping spots in this area from deteriorating into oblivion and would preserve the initial and very sizable investment that was made to build these public recreation areas years ago.

Phon D Sutton Recreation Area RV Camping Tonto National Forest

Phon D Sutton Recreation Area was beloved by all kinds of RVers and tent campers too.

But I’m not sure that the Tonto National Forest, noted by the current supervisor to be a “crown jewel” in the US Forest Service, even has public use or public recreation on its radar these days.

Right now, Tonto National Forest is mired in an earth shattering commercial use of its public land by non-Americans about 50 miles away from the Bush Highway at Oak Flat Campground. This is land that President Eisenhower specifically set aside for protection back in 1955 in an effort to avoid exactly what is happening today.

Saguaro cactus Arizona sunset

Protection of public land lasts only as long as our leaders want it to.

Foreign copper mining interests have acquired nearly four square miles of gorgeous Tonto National Forest land at Oak Flat Campground, a place that rock climbers cherish for its unique rock hoodoos and boulders.

Their new mine, Resolution Copper Mining, owned by British and Australian companies, will soon transform this unusual public land so they can get at the precious copper that lies 7,000′ down.

Copper Mine Globe Arizona 2

Here’s an open pit copper mine. This is the Ascaro Copper Mine located in Ray Arizona about 20 miles from the location of the new mine. This mine isn’t American owned either. It is owned by a Mexican company.

But how did foreigners get approval to build the world’s largest copper mine on America’s public land when little old snowbird RVers can’t even camp in places that were created specifically for public recreation and camping years ago?

The acquisition of this US Forest Service land parcel by Resolution Copper Mining was part of a land swap deal that got tacked onto the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, circumventing normal public notification and vetting.

Foreign mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP Copper formed Resolution Copper Mining, with 55% and 45% ownership respectively, and they are trading 8 small parcels of Arizona land totaling 5,344 acres that they already own for 2,422 acres of Tonto National Forest.

All the land will be appraised, and then Resolution Mining will either add cash to the deal if their land is of lesser value than the National Forest land or they will call it a donation if their land is worth more.

It is unclear if to me if the mineral value of the copper under the National Forest land will be included in the appraised value of what Tonto National Forest is giving up. Obviously, it should be.
Copper Mine Globe Arizona

Copper mining. The ribbons are roads and there are tiny trucks driving on the roads

The deal was pushed through by people who believed that the mine would create lots of jobs in a state that has 6.7 million residents and that it would bring money into the state by way of tax revenue as well.

According to Resolution Mining, after the mine is built, there will be 1,400 steady mining jobs during the peak years it is in operation and they anticipate paying $20 billion in taxes to the Feds and Arizona during they years the mine is profitable (provided they don’t take advantage of income tax loopholes and claim $0 profit).

Reports say it will take about 40 years to extract all the copper. After that, the few mining jobs will end, the copper in the ground will have been sold, with profits going abroad, and Arizona will be left with whatever mess and tailing piles Resolution Copper Mining decides to leave behind.

Copper Mining Globe Arizona

The future of the American people’s Tonto National Forest?

What exactly will this mine will look like? The wording of the deal exempts Resolution Copper Mining from abiding by any environmental mandates, so the new mine could easily be a dusty open pit, because that method of mining copper is cheapest and most profitable for the mine owners.

Reports have claimed the new mine will be a gaping crater two miles across and 1,000 feet deep and that a 500′ tall mountain of waste tailings will be dumped on another parcel of Tonto National Forest land within view from beautiful Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Ummmm…. 500′ tall equates to 50 stories high!

Asarco Copper Mine Ray Arizona

The new Resolution Copper Mine will be much larger than this one — the world’s largest!

But the Resolution Copper Mining website says it will all be done underground by carving the ore out of the rock using the “panel caving” method rather than the “open pit” mining method, and that a waste tailings site hasn’t yet been selected.

Saguaro cactus next to an Arizona copper mine

Saguaro cactus are up in arms about the mining techniques in use at Ascaro copper mine.

The only groups loudly voicing concern right now are the Native Americans, some of whom claim Oak Flat is a sacred area, and rock climbers who love the rock boulders so much they hold major competitions there.

Ironically, the public was outraged a few years ago when a Boy Scout troop leader deliberately knocked over a single red rock hoodoo at Goblin Valley State Park in Utah.

Somehow, that infraction doesn’t seem to compare with this.

The copper on this public land will fetch tens of billions of dollars for the mine owners, depending on copper prices during the period that the mine is in operation.

Enjoy Your National Forest

A sign behind the locked “Road Closed” gates at the Pebble Beach camping area.

So WHY has the Tonto National Forest Service closed the winter camping areas on the Bush Highway?

Is it because they don’t have the money to maintain them?

Obviously, that’s not the case because, with a little political sleight of hand, they’ve proven there’s lots of great land for sale to eager and rich commercial buyers overseas. Plus, with some thoughtful negotiation, besides making an enormous profit from the sale of land, there’s clearly a second and truly gargantuan cash potential if the terms of the land sale lay claim to a percentage of the mammoth profits that will be made from anything extracted from or produced by that land.

Tonto National Forest is an exceedingly rich forest, if its stewards understand basic economics and the rudiments of business.

Is it because they want to protect the delicate environment?

Obviously, that isn’t true either, because they have no problem decimating parts of the “crown jewel” in the Forest Service to build a copper mine.

Saguaro cactus under a rainbow in Arizona

What is the Tonto National Forest’s motive for closing the
Bush Highway camping areas?

Subscribe
Never miss a post — it’s free!

More info about Tonto National Forest, RV Camping and Copper Mining:

Blog Posts from our RV travels with Similar Themes and Images from Arizona:

Our most recent posts:

More of our Latest Posts are in the top MENU above.

<-Previous || Next->

22 thoughts on “Copper Mines, NOT CAMPING, in Tonto National Forest – Why?

  1. Such a shame. Honestly I would much prefer the forest implement a small fee (if they need the money) rather than close off all these beautiful PUBLIC areas. Makes no sense to me. Sadly we never got to enjoy any of these areas although we’ve participated through your beautiful pics. I’ll be writing to the supervisor too.

    Nina

    • Thank you so much for reading and for appreciating our photos too, Nina. You would have loved camping at these places! There actually is a fee — $6 for day use and/or camping and $3 for Seniors. The fee will be going up in January, but I have been told different numbers by different sources, so I am not sure if it will be $8 ($4 for seniors) or $12 with no senior discount. Thank you very much for writing to the Forest Service supervisor!!

      • Tonto National forest is doing their Forest plan now, that will stay in effect for 15 years. They claim the closure is due to cost of maintaining the facilities during the winter. I call that BS. Please ask your blog readers to call and wright Neil and the Tonto National forest and ask them to reopen these facility’s to winter RVers.

  2. This just hurts my heart. I did not know that there would be a copper mine in the Tonto NF. I can’t believe this is going to happen. Thanks for writing about it.

  3. We recently hiked Blue Point and were disappointed by the amount of trash on the trail and Pebble Beach. We have noticed the state has closed areas near Peralta due to ATVs and RVs destroying the land. It makes me sad that so many do not take care of what we had Your photos are beautiful.

    • It is a very sad state of affairs, Debbie. I’m sorry to hear that the Blue Point trail is full of trash. If the Tonto National Forest is well run, then they will soon be making a massive profit from the sale of the mineral rights of nearly four square miles of land to foreign corporations, as I noted in this article. That done, they will soon have loads of money to maintain all its lands in a princely manner. The question is: did our trusted leadership structure the deal that way?

  4. Thank you so much for educating us about this travesty. Greed and short-sightedness have decimated far too many of our public lands. I’ll be contacting Neil Bosworth and the Governor of Arizona, too. More people need to know about this! Too much is kept secret until it’s too late.

  5. This is OUTRAGEOUS and so very sad! It seems ‘they’ keep taking and taking from lands that were guaranteed to be protected and sacred lands, forever changing our beautiful landscapes. It also seems that ‘man’ will not be happy until all that’s wild and free will be confined and the almighty dollar destroys all that’s natural.
    Add ons to bills should never be allowed. This is a prime example of why. And how can a foreign government purchase US land that belongs to the people? WRONG any way you look at it!

    • Yes it is. If a copper mine absolutely had to be built on this land (despite President Eisenhower’s objections), thoughtful leaders who love this country could have structured the deal to net the American people (including the National Forest) a handsome profit earned from an American owned mine. America should be taking in a large, mandatory percentage of gross profits on the sale of copper during the life of the mine, and we should have received a massive sales price for the land. Instead, the land was given away for a song to profit foreigners.

  6. Being Canadian, my letter may reach deaf ears but I will write anyway. Canadian snowbirds can’t vote at the poles; we vote with our wallets and contribute a huge amount to the US tourism economy. They are closing down the places that attract us back to AZ every winter.

    • Thank you for writing. I don’t think any thoughtful letter will reach deaf ears, as it is well known that Canadians are a big part of the RV snowbird population. Canadians are valued and warmly welcomed across the southern states each winter as, hopefully, Americans are welcomed north of the border each summer.

  7. This is a heartbreaking development – this is a part of Arizona I was very much looking forward to exploring someday.

    Your photography is beautiful – and it makes me upset that I will not be able to camp there now. 🙁

    – Chris

    • It is truly tragic, not just for winter RV snowbirds but for locals who used to be able to enjoy an easy winter camping escape from the city on the weekends. The latest I’ve heard from the leadership at Tonto National Forest is that a day use pass for someone who wants to spend an hour fishing or hiking in these areas will cost $12 beginning in January, 2016.

  8. my son was camp host at Pebble Beach for many years. He and his two sons took good care of it and never got paid a cent (except free electric) he had the park looking really good, and all his camping family helped. Everyone helped to keep it clean. They came from all over to camp there and made one big happy family. One year after he pasted away it all went bad. I am glad he never saw it this way. He loved his camp and his camp family

    • I’m sure many campers appreciated all your brother’s hard work. How sad that the Forest Service won’t allow another camp host to continue his work and open up the Pebble Beach area to winter campers.

  9. The four recreation sites mentioned in this blog are standard amenity day use sites on the Mesa Ranger District, not developed campgrounds. Funding to maintain and operate recreation sites on the Tonto National Forest has been reduced by nearly 50% since 2011, and remains at this reduced level today. Based on this funding decrease, seasonal employees are hired to assist with the heavy summer recreation season, leaving few employees to perform maintenance and clean-up during the winter months. This new reality has forced the Tonto National Forest into making the hard decision to close sites, reduce services and consolidate use along the Lower Salt River during the winter months.

    Specific information about each site mentioned on the Roads Less Traveled Blog can be found by visiting the Tonto National Forest website at the following addresses:

    Pebble Beach – (http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto/recreation/picnickinginfo/recarea/?recid=35437&actid=70)
    Goldfield – (http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto/recreation/picnickinginfo/recarea/?recid=35403&actid=70)
    Phone D Sutton – (http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto/recreation/picnickinginfo/recarea/?recid=35397&actid=70)
    Sheeps Crossing – (http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto/recreation/picnickinginfo/recarea/?recid=35435&actid=70)

    With the approval of the Recreation Resource Advisory Council, the Tonto National Forest is implementing a new fee structure. The Tonto National Forest implemented these fee changes to better align visitor prices with the cost to manage sites. Ninety-five percent of recreation fees paid by the public through sale of the Tonto Daily and Annual Discovery Passes are returned to the Forest’s developed recreation sites for operation, maintenance, and management of these sites.

    In response to public outcry, the Tonto National Forest has rescinded the decision to remove the horses, and will continue to engage with the local community and state and federal officials to explore potential alternatives with respect to the horses found on the Mesa Ranger District.

    You make the statement in your blog that “perhaps a similarly passionate outcry from winter snowbird RVers from the north as well as local campers from Arizona would prevent our precious camping spots in this area from deteriorating into oblivion and would preserve the initial and very sizable investment that was made to build these public recreation areas years ago.” Until the Tonto sees benefits from the new fees, camping opportunities along the Lower Salt River will be limited. The Forest anticipates it will be several years before it sees the benefit of these fee increases. Once our operating budget increases, the Tonto can re-evaluate which recreation sites are most appropriate for camping and can potentially re-open winter camping for RVers.

    The Tonto National Forest, Mesa Ranger District, has a Back Country Horseman’s group that has adopted Water-Users recreation site, and is responsible for maintenance and up-keep. Would leaders from an RV group or coalition be willing to work together to discuss the future of winter camping along the Lower Salt River? Is there such an organization willing to partner with the Forest?

    You also state that President Eisenhower withdrew the Oak Flat Campground from mineral exploration in 1955, which is true. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2015(NDAA), passed by Congress and signed into law by the President authorizes mineral exploration in the area, but not within the Oak Flat Campground. An Environmental Impact Statement to consider the mining plan of operation and the proposed land exchange will be completed. This study is expected to take many years to complete, and will provide opportunities for public participation during the process. The campground is currently open and Resolution Copper will continue to provide access to the Oak Flat Campground, until mining operations preclude access because of safety concerns. The area known as Apache Leap will be designated as a Special Management Area, and will be managed to protect the cultural, archaeological, and historical resources found there.

    An additional provision of the NDAA requires Resolution Copper to make annual payments to the federal government during mine production in the event that the appraisal undervalues the copper resource on exchanged lands. This statement should answer your question regarding the mineral value under National Forest land.

    • Thank you, Carrie Templin, for taking the time to post a comment as an official representative of the Tonto National Forest. You do not state the position you hold with Tonto National Forest Service, but I believe you are the Public Affairs Officer.

      Although the four areas mentioned in this article are currently day use areas, Tonto National Forest operated them as campgrounds for winter RV travelers to use for overnight camping purposes for many winters. Granted, there are no designated campsites in these areas. They are simply very large paved parking lots. However, these areas are very much “developed,” as each area houses picnic ramadas, paved roads and vault toilets.

      During the time that these areas were operated as winter campgrounds, Tonto National Forest employed volunteer campground hosts at each site.

      So, although you state that these areas are “standard amenity day use” today, that was not the case in the past. For many winters, Tonto National Forest treated these areas as winter campgrounds, and several of them had 50 or more RVs camped in them every night all winter long.

      You ask me, “Would leaders from an RV group or coalition be willing to work together to discuss the future of winter camping along the Lower Salt River?”

      It is possible.

      When I spoke with Gary Hanna, District Manager of the Tonto National Forest, back in December about the lack of federal funding causing the shutdown of the winter camping areas in Tonto National Forest, he said that there are so many winter volunteers who want to work for Tonto National Forest that some have to be turned away.

      Obviously, with an excess of prospective volunteers wanting to work for Tonto National Forest each winter, the possibility for volunteers to maintain the four Bush Highway winter camping areas not only existed (and was in effect) in the past, but could exist in the future.

      Oddly, the volunteer campground host at Phon D Sutton was fired last year mid-season. Yet despite an apparent excess of prospective volunteers who could fill that position, he was not replaced. A few months later, Phon D Sutton was closed to winter camping.

      That apparent aberration aside, the reliance of the US Forest Service on volunteers to provide labor that cannot be paid for with cash due to insufficient funding begs a much broader, much deeper, and much more crucial question. That question is the essence of this article:

      Why is US Forest Service land being traded away to foreign investors so they can destroy it and make billions of dollars from the minerals lying below the surface while at the same time, due entirely to a lack of funds, the tax paying public is denied camping access elsewhere within the same forest?

      That is gross mismanagement of America’s most precious resources at the highest level.

      It is bad enough to trade away America’s public land, but to do so without providing its owners (the American people) the massive profits it promises to yield is astounding.

      In those billions of dollars of profits that will be earned over 40 years from Tonto National Forest’s copper, couldn’t our leadership have ensured a few thousand a year to pick up the trash and keep the bathrooms clean at recreation sites elsewhere in the very same National Forest?

      With skilled and thoughtful negotiation, a miniscule percentage of the copper profits or sale of copper yielding land could have allowed campers, fishermen, hikers, bikers and horseback riders to enjoy Tonto National Forest for both day use and camping without a fee — in perpetuity!

Comments:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *