Sabino Canyon the spot for good bird-watching

Kinga Biro, from Victoria, British Columbia, pauses for a shot near a mesquite tree loaded with desert mistletoe, which is prime territory for a male phainopepla.


The two women from Oregon enjoyed the Sabino Canyon shuttle ride, they said as they got down at the visitor center Thursday around noon.

But when I asked them what they would change about it, both exclaimed, "Exhaust!"

It's the obvious downside of an otherwise pleasant passenger-shuttle operation up and down the wet canyon northeast of Tucson. The vehicles belch stinky fumes, whether it be the gasoline pollution of three of the shuttles or the biodiesel blast of four others.

I happened to sit on the back bench of a shuttle going up the canyon on a family trip a couple of months ago and we got many unpleasant lungsful of the foul air. The canyon's thousands of runners and walkers also inhale it.

If the U.S. Forest Service gets things right, the exhaust should be gone in 2014. Coronado National Forest is planning an open-ended request for proposals this spring, inviting companies to redo transportation in Sabino Canyon.

While they're at it, they should also take care of some other, seemingly simple problems with the shuttle service. The vehicles are noisy, due to both the engines and the loudspeakers blaring the narration drivers provide. There ought to be a way to tune down those volumes. And the shuttle should stop selling tickets on its antiquated cash-only basis.

If Sabino Canyon Tours Inc. doesn't win the concession back, it will mean an end to the company's 28-year run operating the shuttles.

The reconsideration of the shuttle service is part of a broader reimagining of transit to the park, the trails in the area and the transportation within the park, Coronado National Forest spokeswoman Heidi Schewel said Thursday. The special-use permit under which Sabino Canyon Tours operates expires on Dec. 31. So they're picking up the question of transportation within the park now.

"I'm hoping for state-of-the-art, exciting, vibrant," Santa Catalina District Ranger Stan Helin told me Thursday in a meeting with Schewel at the canyon.

He won't specify whether that means electric vehicles or transitioning to less-polluting fuel such as compressed natural gas. That depends on what's viable, both technologically and economically.

Dead Man's Hill, the last upward slope on the way back to the visitor center, may simply be too steep for an electric vehicle pulling a couple of dozen people and their water bottles.

"There might not be a business model that works," Helin warned, noting that the Forest Service is unlikely to subsidize the operation. "My guess is this needs to be self-sufficient."

Helin thinks the shuttles should return to their roots as a mode of transit, more than an attraction in and of themselves.

The shuttles began operating in June 1978. Before that, until 1973, the road up the canyon was open to private vehicles, but the Forest Service decided to end that to clear up congestion and, yes, reduce pollution.

The service initially envisioned the shuttles as a form of mass transit, like a city bus with narration about the canyon environment. But in the 1980s, the shuttles transformed into an attraction of their own, a "ride" of sorts.

It cost 85 cents in 1978, according to a 2002 paper by Tom Quinn, a district ranger in the 1990s. That's the equivalent of $3 today. Now tickets cost $8 for adults and $5 for children.

It will cost something for any concessionaire to put a new transportation service in at the canyon.

But the Forest Service should do what it takes - even if it means helping pay for some startup costs - to make sure less-polluting, quieter vehicles are rolling up and down the canyon when winter visitors return next year.

On StarNet: Tell us what you think should be a requirement for a new shuttle operator by taking a poll at

Contact columnist Tim Steller at or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter