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.
Tonto National Forest
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.
The last engineer said he couldn't draw a proper plan without ripping down the wall entirely — a process he said was unnecessary. He recommended that Wade repair the damage by reinforcing the wall with concrete and rebar, Wade says.
Wade followed the engineer's advice and repaired the wall. But he failed to get the Forest Service the stamped engineered drawings, so they revoked his permit. Now he has to rip down the wall anyway — and his cabin along with it.
Had he simply fixed the wall without first contacting the Forest Service, he believes he'd still have a cabin.
He's probably right.
A small woman with slate blue eyes and a firm handshake, Colleen Madrid knows she's not the most popular person in Camp Creek.
"My boss calls me 'Mean Colleen,'" she says with a rueful smile.
Madrid has a tough job. National forests are more accessible to the public than national parks and can be used in many different ways. People can get permits for all kinds of things — including grazing cattle, harvesting timber, fishing, and mining. And because the forest is so close to metropolitan Phoenix, it also has its share of issues from urban spillover — gangs, murders, and prostitution. Madrid has to balance all of these (often conflicting) uses and challenges, and still protect the environment.
"There's always someone who isn't going to be happy," she says.
Unpopular as she is among cabin owners, some of Madrid's actions in Camp Creek may well be justified.
When Madrid first arrived, she says that Camp Creek cabin owners weren't following the rules. People left trash in their yards, she says, while others cut down trees, gardened, and installed concrete patios. On another occasion, she walked in on some people taking river rocks out of the creek to build an unauthorized wall.
In Madrid's vision, the Camp Creek cabins shouldn't distract from the land's natural beauty. The cabins should all look relatively uniform, she says, and sit on pristine desert land unmarred by human hands. For Madrid, the "petty items" that cabin owners complain she's required them to remove are actually pretty environmentally significant. Bird feeders spread disease among wild bird populations, she says. Gardening introduces foreign species into a delicate ecosystem and can hurt native plants.
"My job is to maintain the forest for generations to come," she says. "[The cabin owners] don't always seem to understand that they're on National Forest land. It isn't their private property, and there are rules associated with their special-use permits they have to abide by."
Madrid has 10 years' experience behind her. Before becoming the district ranger in Camp Creek, she worked in California, Oregon, and Utah. The rules are the same everywhere, she says, and she's always enforced them the same way. Still, she's found Arizona to be culturally distinct from the other places she's worked.
"People here don't seem to care as much about the environment," Madrid says. "They're very focused on personal rights here and not as much on environmental needs, compared to other places where I've worked."
Nor does she think it's unreasonable to require Larry Wade to tear down his cabin. Madrid says she's just following the standard policies outlined by the U.S. Forest Service that requires stamped architectural drawings of any buildings or walls constructed on national forest land. The Forest Service required Wade to provide drawings because officials think the wall is still a hazard — despite the recent repairs.
"There are environmental issues," she says. "The wall is slumping, and Wade's septic tank is behind the wall. It could go into the stream."
Besides, Madrid says, Wade had plenty of time to come up with the drawings.
"He has a retaining wall; he was warned that he might have to remove and rebuild it in 1993," she says. "He was revoked because he didn't provide us with the plans according to our standards and guidelines."
But Wade says the Forest Service never gave him any such warning. According to Wade, he first approached the Forest Service in 1993 about reinforcing the wall, got permission to repair it without any difficulty, then fixed it. No one told him it might have to come down, he says.
Wade has tried to appeal but was denied. He was traveling in Mexico when his permit was revoked — he says a roommate received the notification and forgot to tell Wade until he had been back for quite some time. As soon as he learned that he might have to tear down his cabin, he appealed — missing the deadline by 48 hours.
Because the appeal was late, the Forest Service never even looked at it.
"You have to get your appeal in before the end of the appeal deadline. That's the law stated in the code of federal regulations," says Madrid. "Because we're a national entity, we can't make exceptions for people — or everyone would want them."
Now, Wade has two choices. He can wait for the Forest Service to demolish his cabin, or bulldoze it himself.
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Wade is not done fighting. He's contacted the offices of U.S. Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl, as well as Congressman Raul Grijalva in an attempt to save the cabin, but says they were not helpful — because Wade has missed the appeal deadline, they said there was not much they could do. He's also been working with Congressman Harry Mitchell's office since the end of July, which helped him appeal to Jay Jensen, the Department of Agriculture deputy under secretary for natural resources and environment.
A spokeswoman for Mitchell says the office is still working with Wade to try to "resolve the issue" but has officially declined to comment because the case is still "in process."
"It's frustrating," says Wade. "They're trying to destroy something that is very important to me, and they seem to have no understanding of how important Camp Creek is to those of us who enjoy it and spent time up there."
In the meanwhile, Wade waits. He goes to Camp Creek nearly every weekend, he says, to spend time in the cabin while he still can.