Many visitors call a 63-year-old cabin in the Tonto National Forest, Ariz., a "half-acre garden of Eden." The Grand Canyon Trust says it's "a historical, aesthetical and botanical treasure."


Yet the Forest Service has decided to tear down the cabin within six months. The agency made the decision despite a spirited effort by the private, liberal-arts Prescott College to save the site. The college owns the cabin and leases the surrounding half-acre orchard from the Forest Service.


In 1982, the college signed a 10-year lease which included the stipulation that any buildings remaining on the property after December 1993 would be removed. Joel Hiller, acting president of the college and dean at the time, signed that agreement. He says he anticipated no problems renewing the lease. He was wrong.


Last year, Forest Service officials said renewal of the lease was inconsistent with national policy and that they wanted to build a trailhead where the cabin stands. Stunned by the turndown, the college asked elected officials and the public for support. The Forest Service backed off, and agreed to issue the college a one-year, special-use permit while reviewing alternatives.


Now the year is up, and in a six-page letter to Prescott College President Hiller Dec. 9, Tonto Supervisor Charles Bazan outlined the reasons why he denied the school's request for a new 10-year lease.


Bazan said that the cabin is dilapidated and lacks historical significance; that few Prescott College students visit the site, and those that do could easily use a nearby facility run by Arizona State University; that water currently used to water the orchard and flowering shrubs should be used for native species; and that the forest has a policy of phasing out isolated cabins. The letter did not mention the need for a new trailhead.


Perhaps the person most distressed by the Forest Service denial is Richard Landis, the caretaker of the cabin and orchard for the last quarter of a century. Landis spearheaded a letter-writing campaign for the college that generated some 1,000 letters to the agency over the last year.


"It's unbelievable that the Forest Service would target this half-acre out of a 3 million-acre forest," says Landis. "This is a beautiful and unique example of man and nature working in harmony. Why would they want to destroy it?"


Although the Forest Service says the decision is not appealable, Landis says he and the Prescott College officials are looking into any avenues of recourse they might have left.


Forest Service spokeswoman Joyce Hassell says she sympathizes with Landis. "He has a deep emotional attachment to this place that is hard to quantify," she says. "But this particular piece of land is on the national forest and we have a responsibility to serve the broader public."


Just days following the decision to deny Prescott College's permit, Tonto Forest officials released a plan calling for a new trailhead at a site adjacent to the cabin. For more information, contact the Tonto National Forest, 2324 E. McDowell Road, P.O. Box 5348, Phoenix, AZ 85010 (602/225-5200).


* Peter McBride





The writer is a former HCN intern. Paul Larmer contributed to this report.