The Sabino Canyon shuttles serve around 150,000 visitors every year. 

Doug Kreutz / Arizona Daily Star

The U.S. Forest Service intends to decide who will operate the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area shuttle service through a “competitive process.”

That’s according to a May 31 letter from Regional Forester Calvin Joyner to Donn Ricketts, the owner of current operator Sabino Canyon Tours, which is a private concessionaire. Ricketts has operated the trams in the canyon since 1986 and is seeking a new 20-year permit.

“During the environmental analysis process, the Forest became aware of several parties who are interested in providing a shuttle service in Sabino Canyon,” reads the letter, referencing the still-unreleased final study. “Based on this demonstrated competitive interest, the Forest will issue a prospectus to operate and maintain a shuttle service in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, consistent with applicable regulations and directives.”

Issuing a prospectus is mandated when there are “one or more unsolicited proposals,” according to Forest Service regulations cited in the letter. Those same regulations also require the agency to “make every effort to obtain the best qualified permittee as well as an equitable return to the United States.”

The letter proposes extending Ricketts’ special-use permit, which expires June 30, for another year, and possibly one more after that if “the competitive process is still pending.”

A Forest Service official previously told the Star that Ricketts could enjoy “a first right of refusal on a new permit,” meaning he could be awarded the 20-year permit without competition as long as his company was able to meet the Forest Service’s requirements.

But on Tuesday, Deputy Coronado National Forest Supervisor Deb Bumpus told the Star that, after consultation with lawyers, her agency determined that they could not offer Ricketts that option, given that other potential tram operators have expressed interest.

Rep. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, who has heard from a number of prominent constituents in recent months criticizing the current shuttle arrangement, praised what she described as the Forest Service’s “right decision.”

“In numerous meetings with the agency about the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area shuttle over the past few months, my staff and I strongly advocated for an open, competitive and transparent process,” the written statement said. “Our position was that such a process would be the best way to achieve the goal of an overwhelming majority of stakeholders: a clean, modern and efficient shuttle that could safely serve the thousands of residents and visitors who use Sabino Canyon every year.”

Among those who reached out to McSally earlier this year were local businessmen, auto dealer Jim Click and Canyon Ranch co-founder Mel Zuckerman, who, in identical March letters, criticized the Forest Service for “considering renewing the 20-year permit for shuttle service at Sabino Canyon to the current operator … without a request for proposals or offering open competition.”

They also said that Sabino Canyon Tours “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.”

Ricketts, who had not read the letter until contacted by the Star on Tuesday afternoon, said he has been looking into replacing his fleet with electric vehicles for roughly the last year.

“I do know of a couple others that were interested, but they have no idea how to run a shuttle,” he said about the new permit process.

Ricketts has been operating the shuttle service since 1986, and the biodiesel and gasoline vehicles date back several decades, according to the Forest Service’s draft environmental assessment. The shuttles serve around 150,000 visitors every year. Only cash payment is accepted for rides on the shuttle.

Paul Marques, president of Friends of Sabino Canyon, which has been lobbying for shuttle changes and was founded by Click and Zuckerman in 1993, said he hopes to see someone other than Ricketts take over.

He described the current shuttles as noisy and “an eyesore,” and said the prospect of a competitive process is welcome news.

Bumpus pointed out that Ricketts will be welcome to compete along with any other applicants.

Contact: mwoodhouse@tucson.com or 573-4235. On Twitter:

@murphywoodhouse