Cabin Fever: Camp Creek’s Cabin Owners Say the New District Ranger Is Driving Them Out

Visiting Camp Creek for the first time is a bit like discovering a hidden fairyland.

One moment you're driving, surrounded by nothing but bald, craggy desert mountains and open sky. Then, the road dips between two hills and there it is: an oasis tucked beneath a dense canopy of sycamore and juniper trees shading a gurgling creek. Just 20 minutes northeast of Carefree, it's at least 10 degrees cooler than it is in the Valley. On a Saturday afternoon in early fall, a dragonfly buzzes by to rest on a fluffy brown cattail growing along the creek bed. Other than a few birds and burbling water, that's the only sound.

For Larry Wade, there's just one way to describe such a scene: perfection.

Larry Wade's cabin and the retaining wall that needed repair.
Malia Politzer
Larry Wade's cabin and the retaining wall that needed repair.

Wade is one of several dozen people who own cabins on this 873-acre tract of the Tonto National Forest. The Forest Service issues special-use permits for the land, where people build the cabins themselves — they own their homes but not the land they sit on. It can get tricky, as cabin owners have recently learned.

For the past three years, a struggle between a district ranger and several cabin owners has turned the charming oasis into a war zone. Cabin owners claim that the new ranger is arbitrarily changing the rules in an attempt to drive them out. The ranger says she's just enforcing rules that her predecessor let slip.

Now the battle has come to a head. Two cabin owners — Wade and Treva Henderson — have seen their permits revoked, which means they must demolish their cabins by November 4. Other cabin owners fear they're next.

Many cabin owners here divide Camp Creek history into two parts — before and after ranger Colleen Madrid became the head of the Tonto National Forest's Camp Creek District in 2006.

"We call her 'the witch,'" says Ken Beckner, 82, a former cabin owner who started visiting Camp Creek when he was 6 years old.

Beckner's grandmother also had a cabin here, and he says many of his best memories are of fishing along the river as a child and, later, taking his own children and grandchildren to Camp Creek.

Earlier this year, he sold his cabin. Beckner says he left because he was fed up with dealing with Madrid.

"Camp Creek just wasn't fun anymore," he says.

Another cabin owner, Tara Jones, complains that Madrid runs the cabins like a military camp. Madrid has required cabin owners to rid the property around their cabins of personal items, including bird feeders, picnic tables, lawn chairs, hammocks, no-smoking signs, wind chimes — even window thermometers. Another cabin owner, Tom Sell, was forced to get rid of a fire pump that saved several of the cabins from burning in a 2005 fire.

"She wants them all to look exactly the same," complains Jones, who loves the cabins' unique characteristics.

There are 33 in total — each quirky and lovingly built. There's a small, hobbit-like abode built entirely from river rocks. A larger cabin is guarded by a giant sycamore tree with tentacle-like branches, each as thick as a man's torso. Still another can be reached only by crossing a narrow wood-and-rope bridge that sways with each step.

Inside the cabin guarded by the octopus-tree, brightly painted walls are embellished with Africa-inspired spirals and triangular patterns. Plaster dinosaurs lurk on the eaves, eyeing a plush sitting room below. It's one of two cabins owned by the Jan Sanders and Shelby Wilson, a couple in their 60s. The second is a sweet, 400-square-foot cabin made entirely of creek rocks and warmed by a wood-burning stove. They've owned them both for 24 years but will soon have to sell one. Because they are married, the Forest Service says they can have only one permit.

Then there's the cabin owned by Wilson Jones, an architect. It's a quaint one-room studio with plenty of light, a double bed, and a small country kitchenette. A perfect getaway for one person — except that there's no sink. Because the cabin has no toilet and, therefore, no septic system, Madrid insisted Jones remove the sink, he says.

And there's also the cabin belonging to Wade. The rustic two-story building sits somewhat apart from the rest, a few hundred yards above the creek bed. Wade built it himself in 1995. He installed the oak cabinets. He put in the floorboards on the second story, picked out the Mexican Saltillo tile that lines ground floor.

Now he's going to have to tear the whole thing down. The Forest Service has ordered him to bulldoze the cabin — all because of a disagreement over how to repair a retaining wall a few hundred yards away.

For Wade, the trouble started in 2005. He noticed that the retaining wall had been damaged after a flood — water seeped in through cracks in the wall, soaking the fill dirt behind it, causing the wall to slump and crumble. He'd already worked with the Forest Service to repair the wall once before in 1993, without incident, he says. Once again, Wade contacted the Forest Service to get permission to fix it.

The Forest Service initially rejected his request because it was performing an environmental assessment of the land. When Madrid inspected the wall in 2006, Wade says, the wall had deteriorated significantly. Madrid agreed that it needed to be fixed and asked Wade to submit a proposal — including stamped engineered drawings detailing how the wall would be repaired, Wade says. In total, Wade says he hired four engineers to inspect the wall.

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Gee 'liberty' lighten up. If they were so concerned why did the cabin owners not just buy private land to put up there cabins, no problem. I cannot go out there and just prop up a cabin. This happened at Lake Mead and on Indian reservation at Hawley Lake. You are there subject to the jurisdiction's rules. The Lake Mead people were sites inside the park boundaries. They wanted the cabins but did not want to pay any taxes on the improvements. Essentially they wanted their cake and eat it too. There is no constitutional right to build a cabin on Federal land, built it on private land, where you have protections.


These communists that work for the forest service are numerous and getting more numerous by the day. This woman and her diatribe about enforcing the rules is typical of the lies and disinformation that the forest service spews fourth. She says that a garden may cause invasive species of plants to take root yet the fools in the USFS sit back and do nothing about the millions of tamarisk trees that are choking every waterway in the state a tree they themselves introduced back in the 40's. They don't service the people of this country but act as a wing of the Sierra Club (many are members). What amuses me is that most the folks that live in camp creek are probably leftists themselves and are getting a taste of what Odumba has in store for the rest of us on a variety of issues. The USFS could't run a lemonade stand much less manage the National Forest. They can't even control a controlled burn. This woman is a do gooder lib and wants people off the land so she and her lefty friends can have it to themselves. She probably drives a prius and couldn't hike the north kaibab without a mule. Go back to California ya puke.


For Wade and others in Camp Creek.

Just my opinion:

You live on rented land for a period of time until the permit has to be renewed - if possible - I would comply with the Rangers and try to work it out with all persons involved. That following link should be of interest.

Contact the Project Deciding Officer - Gene Blankenbaker in Phoenix to hammer out a solution!

Again Good Luck!

PS: I also do not believe that Collen Madrid is as bad as portrait.

Lola Lash
Lola Lash

Why did the forest service allow people to build in the first place if they were just going to put all these prohibitive sanctions reminiscent of restrictive HOA's in place? So many people are looking for their little piece of paradise that they can enjoy..I feel very sorry that these folks getting "the carrot and the slap". OK, today you can do this, but tomorrow, oh no no no, that's just ridiculous. Hope they can find some common ground, and "Mean Colleen" can find a little ease in her pucker factor!

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