Tim Steller

Tim Steller

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

Now the big guns are firing in the battle of Sabino Canyon.

I’m referring of course, to the debate over who should run the Sabino Canyon tram operation after the current contract expires June 30. Sabino Canyon Tours owner Donn Ricketts is pushing for a new 20-year deal, but some Tucsonans are demanding that the U.S. Forest Service open the contract to new bidders.

Among the latest to weigh in are a couple of Tucson’s biggest big shots: Canyon Ranch founder Mel Zuckerman and auto dealer Jim Click. The two of them helped found Friends of Sabino Canyon in 1993, and now they’re pushing the Forest Service to open the bidding to new operators.

In identical letters sent to Rep. Martha McSally March 10 and 13, Click and Zuckerman said: “I am writing you today to let you know how extremely concerned I am that the US Forest Service (Coronado National Forest) is considering renewing the 20 year permit for shuttle service at Sabino Canyon to the current operator, Sabino Canyon Tours, without a request for proposals or offering open competition.”

They went on, “Sabino Canyon Tours has had a contract for more than 20 years and has performed at an extremely poor level consistently. The outdated shuttles are ill equipped to provide such an important service to over a million visitors to Sabino Canyon each year.”

It’s one thing when a group of well-heeled enviros complain about noise and pollution and cash-only businesses, as the Friends of Sabino Canyon have publicly done for months now, but a different thing when Click and Zuckerman do. Now things are getting serious.

To Ricketts, it all feels like a bunch of powerful people, myself included, are unfairly picking on him. In a 44-minute phone conversation Friday, Ricketts assailed my previous coverage of the issue and the efforts to replace him.

“All I can say is that a lot of people have portrayed things and come up and said things that are inaccurate,” he said.

He was especially upset about a March 12 email from David Gebert, president of the Tucson Electric Vehicle Association, encouraging other members of the association to tell the Forest Service to go with an electric-vehicle-using operator. The detail that really irked him was when Gebert wrote that Rickets “wants a 20 year contract so he can cash in and sell.”

“I cannot do that for one CANNOT sell said Contract,” Ricketts wrote in a March 15 email. “Said Contract is Worthless — since one CANNOT ‘Sell’ said Contract as stated by the Government.”

Ricketts railed on that fact in the long, strange circular conversation we had by phone Friday.

“The value of this company is zero without a contract,” he said. “I can’t sell the business to somebody else.”

Ricketts also revealed a couple of interesting details. One: He says he is still paying off a home-equity loan that he took out to keep the business afloat after the 2006 Sabino Canyon floods. He feels under-appreciated for the difficulties he went through in those tough years. Fair enough.

Another detail: He doesn’t use a debit card. He thinks they expose users to too many security risks from scam artists and skimmers at gas stations.

“I don’t even have an ATM card myself,” he told me. “I figure if I can’t pay for it myself. ...”

This is significant because Ricketts has kept ticket purchases a cash-only affair all these years, past the time when paying with cash was normal. He reiterated that his major concern is that too many people will dispute the ticket purchases made on cards, and then he’ll have to pay to fight for the disputed charge. I questioned how prevalent this problem would be, but apparently he has more personal reasons for opposing card payments as well.

Ricketts also questioned why, if I like electric vehicles so much, I don’t drive one. It seemed like a non-sequitur to me, and I pointed out that, unlike him, I don’t have a monopoly on vehicle transportation within a narrow canyon.

The Forest Service has been juggling this hot potato for years, and now, like other federal agencies, it is in stealth mode. Due to Trump administration dictates, the agency is even more reluctant to release public documents than before. It has not completed or at least not released the overdue final environmental assessment for the tram service.

I sent Coronado National Forest officials an email Friday with three questions on the tram situation, but had not received a response by Saturday afternoon. For people wishing to preserve their careers and pensions, it’s a delicate situation.

In December, Santa Catalina District Ranger Ken Born told me via email, “The Forest Service Washington Office has suggested allowing the current permit holder first right of refusal on a new permit, under the condition that they can demonstrate that the terms, conditions, and permit holder responsibilities outlined in the prospectus can be met as part of their bid package/special use permit application.”

That is precisely what everyone, other than Ricketts, opposes — a first right of refusal. Most want electric vehicles, most want card payments available, most want less-noisy narration, but everyone wants an open process.

The opacity of the process, though, is keeping people out. BYD, an electric-vehicle manufacturer, proposed to Ricketts that he buy electric vehicles from them and pay the cost back over five to seven years, West Coast sales manager Justin Scalzi told me. Ricketts wasn’t interested in the arrangement.

BYD is interested in making trams, but without an open process it’s hard to know what to do next.

Nobody except Ricketts tells me electric vehicles are cost-prohibitive — the only problem is the up-front cost, which should be possible to cover relatively quickly thanks in part to the elimination of the cost of diesel fuel, as Colleen Crowninshield of the Pima Association of Government’s Clean Cities program told me.

“I think what people need to remember is there could be up-front costs. That’s where the largest expense is going to be. But if you look at it over a five-year period, you’ve got a payback that is serious. No fuel, no oil changes — all those expenses are gone. At that point, your expense is simply the driver.”

Seems so simple, but as we’ve seen, change comes slowly in Sabino Canyon. Still, there’s never been such high-profile pressure for change as there is now.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter