Arizona Tour Company Says Feds Arbitrarily Disqualified Its Canyon Trams

WASHINGTON (CN) – A shuttle company operating in the scenic Sabino Canyon in Tucson, Ariz. claimed in court on Friday that the U.S. Forest Service arbitrarily disqualified it from operating trams in the canyon.

In doing so, Sabino Canyon Tours Inc. and its owner Donn Ricketts allege in a Dec. 22 complaint, the Forest Service contradicted more than 100 years of agency policy and practice, and flouted the Term Permit Act of 1915.

For the first time, Sabino Canyon Tours says the Forest Service will open a competition for a tram operator under a five-year permit, which could force the company to close after 32 years.

Filed by Kevin Garden in Alexandria, Va., the complaint claims the Forest Service arbitrarily deemed Sabino Canyon Tours “incapable of  meeting the public demands” outlined in the agency’s call for a new tram operator.

Garden did not return an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.

Nestled into the foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains in Tucson, Sabino Canyon draws locals and tourists alike. Cars are not allowed, but many visitors opt to take a tram for a 45-minute narrated tour of the canyon.

Sabino Canyon Tours, with Ricketts at the helm, has operated the tram service there since 1985.

The company has mostly operated on long-term permits issued under the Term Permit Act of 1915, which provide the necessary funding to make improvements.

Bu that changed in 2006 when the Forest Service started issuing short-term permits in preparation for an area concept plan, the lawsuit says.

“The Forest stated that the purpose of the concept plan was ‘to provide the Forest with tools for improving and building an exceptional recreation experience for visitors, within a sustainable and environmentally sensitive framework,'” the 52-page complaint says.

The agency disqualified Sabino Canyon Tours for its inability to purchase expensive new equipment for tram operations to meet the plan’s objectives, the lawsuit says.

But prior to disqualifying the company on May 31 for its failure to purchase new equipment, Sabino Canyon Tours says the Forest Service failed to specify what public demands it wanted the company to meet.

The Forest Service had previously said it would make that determination only after conducting an environmental assessment, which the agency completed Nov. 3.

“The agency’s determination that SCT had failed to make changes to its operations in accord with this final decision, however, was incongruously made on May 31, 2017, over five months before the final decision was made as to what those changes should be,” the lawsuit says, abbreviating Sabino Canyon Tours.

The company points the finger at the Forest Service for making it impossible for it to get the new equipment that the agency said was necessary.

“The agency had also admitted that obtaining expensive new shuttle equipment, such as vehicles with alternative motor vehicle technology, was not feasible under SCT’s short length permits,” the complaint states.

According to the lawsuit, only under a long-term permit – which the agency promised to issue but failed to follow through on – would Sabino Canyon Tours be able to afford the equipment.

“Thus, it was irrational for the agency to assert that SCT showed an inability to meet changing public demands by failing to purchase new equipment under a short length permit when the agency admitted this purchase was infeasible,” the lawsuit states.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, did not return a voice message seeking comment on the lawsuit.

Sabino Canyon Tours also claims the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it determined that continued tram service wouldn’t disturb the grounds in the canyon’s recreational area. If a new tram operator is selected, Sabino Canyon Tours will be forced removed its existing buildings and shelters, which will disturb the grounds, the complaint says.

The company says adhering to the law is important for an area characterized as a unique desert environment by the U.S. Forest Service itself.

“The area provides habitat for many species of plants and animals, including the federally-listed Gila chub, Gila topminnow and Western yellow-billed cuckoo,” the complaint says. “For these reasons, the Coronado National Forest considers Sabino Canyon to be the jewel of southeast Arizona.”

Sabino Canyon Tours seeks a preliminary injunction, and is asking the court to vacate the Forest Service’s determination of its ineligibility and remand the matter to the Forest Service.

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