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.
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?
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.
Pebble Beach was one recreation area that used to be very popular for winter camping and boondocking.
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.
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.
Tragically, since his arrival in 2012, the supervisor of Tonto National Forest, Neil Bosworth (bio here, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org) 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 that used to be open for winter RV camping and are now closed permanently 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)
In addition, there’s a day use area that is closed in the wintertime too, so you can’t even park your car and look around:
- Sheep Crossing (day use)
Fortunately for tourists and nature lovers, there is one gorgeous spot that has remained open for day use only, so at least it is possible to park and go exploring, even if you are not allowed to camp there. It is 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.
The craggy rocks and colorful trees and reflecting water are just sensational.
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 day use area next door to Blue Point is closed.
Huh? Oh well. We had fun getting reflection shots of the riverbanks.
Up on a rocky precipice we saw a great blue heron keeping an eye out for fast moving fish.
The great blue heron wasn’t the only one fishing. A fisherman was casting his net in the river too.
The play of the light on his net and the light on the water and clouds was just beautiful.
The pretty trees and jagged rock faces along the Salt River lit up in brilliant golden hues every afternoon.
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! When the Boy Scouts plan a weekend camping outing to Coon Bluff, the places is a mad house and the parking is insane.
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.
Unfortunately, as of October, 2015, Phon D Sutton is now closed to camping year round.
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.
What a shame.
What a waste of good facilities and good money that went into building them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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More info about Tonto National Forest, RV Camping and Copper Mining:
- Where are the Bush Highway camping and recreation areas? – Google Maps
- Where is Oak Flat Campground (the location of the new copper mine)? – Google Maps
- Tonto National Forest Supervisor – Neil Bosworth (email:
- Arizona Governor Doug Ducey – Email contact form
- Winter Camping Closures on the Bush Highway
- How Pristine Public Land Becomes a Foreign Owned Open Pit Mine
- — An excellent, well balanced article from the Phoenix daily newspaper, the Arizona Republic.
- Tonto National Forest Mining Land Swap
- — An impassioned account of what is going on. See the insightful and informed quotes by J. Scott Wood 1/4 down the page.
- Impact of Dusty Mine Tailings and Dust Storms on Neighbors – Copper mining isn’t just ugly
- The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange Bill – All the details in legalese
- Interpretation of the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange – A section-by-section explanation of the above
- Southeast Arizona Land Exchange – Wikipedia Page
- Resolution Copper Mining FAQ – Explains what Resolution Mining plans to do with the land they’re acquiring
Blog Posts from our RV travels with Similar Themes and Images from Arizona:
- What is Happening to our Public Land? – Foreign Developers take control of National Forest land at the Grand Canyon
- Bears Ears National Monument in Utah – Navajo and other Indian Tribes Propose a New and Enormous National Monument
- What is Boondocking and How Do You Do It?
- Wild Horses of the Salt River – Grass eating equines – Mesmerizing or Menace?
- Arizona Autumn Splendor at Roosevelt Lake – Who knew the desert had a fall foliage season?
- Saguaro Lake – On the Waterfront in the Sonoran Desert
- Hunting Wildflowers in Tonto National Forest – Why the Tonto National Forest is a Crown Jewel in the Forest Service
- Rivers of Phoenix – Oases in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert – Gorgeous oases in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert
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