The River Mild : No one disputes that Arizona’s Quartzite Falls were deadly. But when Taz Stoner and his pals tamed the Salt River with explosives, they didn’t just fool with Mother Nature--they broke federal law and ignited public passion
The elemental simplicities of wilderness travel were thrills. They represented complete freedom to make mistakes. The wilderness gave those rewards and penalties, for wise and foolish acts against which civilization has built a thousand buffers.
--Aldo Leopold, author and forester
Taz Stoner fired the blast heard around the world of wilderness travel and whitewater rafting.
He blew the lower lip off remote Quartzite Falls on the majestic Salt River 100 miles northeast of here. It took Stoner, seven schemers and 145 pounds of explosives to reshape this rapid from an experts’ deadly menace to a cascade for lesser river runners.
But when accused of the bombing, he wouldn’t say why.
Stoner, a 34-year-old river guide, was tarred as the amoral commander of the Quartzite Eight, destroyers of a natural and signature resource. News stories from Pasadena to Paris described his wrecking crew as eco-terrorists, heretics and environmental rapists. A letter to Paddler magazine suggests Stoner’s next river ride be face-down without a rubber boat.
Stoner still spoke no explanation.
In October, a federal grand jury indicted William Stoner--"Taz” since high school for approaching football, sky-diving, rodeo, life and food with the fierce appetite of a Tasmanian devil--on charges of conspiracy and destruction of federal property. Along with Richard Scott, Stephen Cortright, William Kelley, James Lewus, and the brothers Christopher, Mark and Michael Meehl.
And the Quartzite Eight stayed silent.
Then came two months of hot pretrial rumors. The most popular accuses Stoner of blowing Quartzite Falls to reduce a rafting bottleneck and make his part-time job easier. Some are whispering that one or maybe all three companies licensed to run this 58-mile stretch of river, from U.S. 60 to Highway 288, paid him to tame the falls.
Or did the U.S. Forest Service, guardian of the river, turn a blind eye to Stoner’s blasting because the deadly rapids represented a perennial federal liability?
Last week, preparing to plead guilty, Stoner finally spoke out.
“I did it to save lives . . . to make it safer for the public to pass through there,” he said. He said he toyed with doing something for years. Then, two Californians drowned at Quartzite. “It made me want to take the killer out of it.”
The death trap--familiar to river runners and federal publications covering the Salt River Wilderness of Tonto National Forest--was created by a rose quartz ridge, 21 feet across, that partially barricaded the falls.
Off-season, at low water, with the river running at 400 cubic feet of water per second, the rock was visible and harmless. On season, when the snow-fed Salt River may thunder at 50,000 CFS until its canyon walls quiver, the ridge was submerged and built silent, invisible, hydraulic downforces.
This underwater disturbance elevated Quartzite Falls to a Class 6 ride--somewhere between vicious and inescapable. The type of hazard river-runners call a “keeper,” it sucked logs, cows, even 16-foot boats to the bottom, holding anything down for maybe 30 seconds before spitting it out.
Only the stupid or exceptionally skilled ran Quartzite at full boil in a rubber boat. The majority carried their craft around the falls. Or “lined” them, tethering rafts to long ropes and leading them through the 100-foot long rapids like a hippo on a leash.
In May, 1993, Richard Panich, 44, of Manhattan Beach, and Jerry Buckhold, 43, of Chico, dared to run the falls. The keeper grabbed their boat. The veteran rafters drowned.
“I read about the drownings and wasn’t surprised,” Stoner recalls. He is a bachelor who speaks softly from a gentle face with the look of a loner. “Quartzite Falls is a hazard, has been for a number of years, I knew of its dangers. . . . Still, if I’d ever thought about (demolition) before, I wasn’t serious. After the drownings, I was serious.”
Stoner, a construction engineer on weekdays, a skier, diver, hiker, hunter and climber on weekends, says he faxed a copy of a news story about the drownings to a man he had taken down the river: Rich Scott, 39, an explosives and hazardous materials expert with a masters degree in engineering from Arizona State.
Scott recruited a crew from good buddies who also had run the river with Stoner. They are companions in campfire parties, hiking, fishing, families and picnics. They have small businesses and no criminal records. Most are married, some baby-sit each other’s kids, almost all say they share Stoner’s concern for public safety.
Except Cortright, 39, owner of a furniture-foam company and the wheel man who drove explosives and bombers to the site: “My motivation was that it was a weekend rouser with the boys.”
Last summer, Scott used an $800 cashier’s check to buy commercial binary explosives--inert ammonium nitrate in four-pound pouches that comes alive when mixed with nitro methane. Exploded by detonator and primer cord, the mix is 30% more powerful than gelatin dynamite.
Between August and October of last year--sometimes as a group of five, sometimes just Scott and Stoner--the Quartzite Eight took four cruel hikes and one raft ride to the falls.
“The first two explosions . . . 28 pounds the first time, 30 pounds the next . . . there wasn’t a whole lot of damage,” Stoner says. “The third was 68 pounds, explosives the size of a beach ball.”
That broke the back of the ridge. Final, smaller blasts performed surgery, trimming and cleaning. The ridge now juts only six feet across the river. Its fatal hydraulics are believed to be finished.
But in the process, Stoner has violated a natural setting.
“I feel bad about that because I do have respect for rivers,” he says. “A lot of people, including some friends of mine, are disgusted that we did it. And I’m ashamed to have hurt their feelings in that way.
“But I made something safer. Lives will be saved. That outweighs the destruction of a natural resource in my mind.”
Spring was a poor, dry season on the Upper Salt. Only a scattering of boats ran the river. So the wounds of Quartzite Falls went undetected until March.
That’s when one rafter reported that the ride seemed different, not quite as intimidating. Then a length of fuse was found alongside the sharp edges of freshly blown rocks.
Explosives records led federal agents to Scott. Interviews with Tonto Forest officials and river outfitters pointed at Stoner.
For there had been complaints that Stoner, a guide for Desert Voyager Rafting Tours of Mesa, had been involved in arguments with other rafters portaging or lining boats around and through Quartzite. At a spot where jammed boats could produce five-hour delays in negotiating the falls, Stoner had been known to jump the line.
The speculation, some published, was direct. Stoner was said to have blown the falls to ease delays and move more people. Conceivably, that could add to his income and increase the number of two-day trips organized by Desert Voyager.
That, Stoner counters, is nonsense. He already works every weekend of the three-month season, so additional trips wouldn’t benefit him. He earns $50,000 a year as a full-time engineer and only $3,000 as a part-time river guide. And he guides for pleasure, not profit.
Further, he blasted only one rock the size of a Volkswagen. That, he says, improved the safety of the falls without reducing their size, pace, level of difficulty or challenge.
“It’s very possible we’re still going to get three-hour waits with eight boats in line,” he says. “The falls are still a big tourist attraction and people will want to stop there. This will remain one of the most exciting rapids on the river, and only the most experienced will choose to run it. Now they won’t die doing it.”
Pat Blumm owns Desert Voyager. He insists that he had nothing to gain by Stoner’s assault on Quartzite Falls. His permit allows him to raft 286 people each season, and each season he carries close to the maximum.
“I know these guys were not hired mercenaries,” he says. “We (river outfitters) have got too much to lose, nothing to win.”
Investigators probed deep to find a financial link between outfitters and the Quartzite Eight. Stoner and Scott denied any connection and agreed to polygraph tests. A source within the investigation said both men passed.
It is generally accepted that the Forest Service would never disturb natural formations of a federal wilderness. There is no evidence suggesting any official of the agency gave Stoner a wink, a nod and tacit approval for the bombing.
Yet in the early ‘70s, after another drowning at Quartzite Falls, there were calls for correction.
“People came to us and said the obvious solution to this is to destroy it,” recalls Pete Weinel, recreation director of the Tonto National Forest and co-author of its guide to the Upper Salt River. “So we looked at it and we said: ‘No, that’s really not the solution. The solution is to be careful and to be warned.’ ”
The Forest Service, he adds, does not consider Quartzite Falls a liability. A hazard, yes. But posted and well publicized and a calculated risk. And no victim’s family has ever filed a lawsuit over fatal accidents at the falls.
George Marsic, owner of World Wide Explorations, believes risk is part of the river’s allure.
Even when danger turns deadly and places such as Quartzite Falls become fatal attractions?
“Hell, yes,” he says. “Each river has its own personality, its own reality, and (Quartzite) was part of the challenge.
“A Class 3 rapid can kill somebody. You can drown in a bathtub. That (risk) is part of the wilderness experience. John Wesley Powell would have never gone down the Colorado if he’d been worried about dying.”
Yet, say Marsic and other outfitters, the Forest Service could have created a climate that encouraged Stoner’s act. Budget and manpower restrictions have always minimized river management. Only this year, Marsic says, did officials agree to a permit system and limit the number of private boats to increase safety on the Salt River.
“But the service has constantly wanted to defer that,” he says. “Now, two deaths and a major destruction of a natural resource happens. Oh, yes, I point the finger--in the sense that the situation became so aggravated that somebody (Stoner) did something stupid.”
Stoner anticipated protest and criticism for his act.
He didn’t expect a global demand for his hide.
W.L. Minckley, a professor of zoology at Arizona State University, says he is studying the damage to measure depletion, if any, of the native fish population. But he is more concerned “that certain people have absolutely no respect for public lands and they go in and destroy a remarkable natural feature. And apparently with no thought of this being ethically wrong.”
Gail Peters is Arizona director of American Rivers. She despises the thought of individuals deliberately damaging God’s wilderness. And what’s next?
“What if somebody says: ‘Gosh, I don’t like this rapid in the Grand Canyon and it’s really too hard to run’?” she asks. “Does that mean somebody can sneak down there some winter month and blow it up and rearrange it? Or what if somebody doesn’t like Mt. Rushmore? Can they go blow it up?”
Stoner was hoping for understanding from Bob Finkbine. They have known each other for six years as fellow river guides. But Finkbine, 63, a poet and retired teacher, cannot be sympathetic.
He says his future is duller. Because Quartzite carried the evil fascination of the jaws of hell.
“We’d come down the river knowing how dangerous it was and the adrenaline would start to pump,” he remembers. “Is there any chance of running it? Could we get by on the right? Do we line it?
“Nature established it as a barrier, a challenge. At times you’d moan and groan about it. But this was an exhilaration of the river in its natural state. It was free.
“Now. Boom! It’s gone. In my poet’s eye, the womb is still bleeding.”
Stoner is guilty of another oversight. He didn’t research laws concerning conspiracies and explosives and destruction of federal property.
“I kinda knew we were doing something wrong,” he admits. “But I had no idea it was a felony. I had no idea you could go to jail for it.”
But that is indeed the letter of the law. Conspiracy has a maximum penalty of five years, and destruction of federal property could bring a 20-year sentence. Both felonies carry $250,000 fines.
Beaten by the passionate backlash, broken by $10,000 in legal fees, Stoner pleaded guilty last week in exchange for a sentence of up to 18 months in a federal facility. Scott has signed the same agreement.
The others have also plea-bargained. Depending on the extent of participation, there will be short sentences, probation or community service. Sentencing will be in January.
Stoner is bitter. He think his crime has been overblown by environmental extremists. And that their movement has lost its human priorities.
“We removed a rock, we didn’t obliterate a pretty, beautiful waterfall,” he says. “Sure, this may have taken something away from a very few people who were qualified to run it in its previous condition.
“But we had a purpose that will benefit all people for years to come, and ultimately save lives. And if we’re guilty of anything, we’re probably guilty of weighing out human life as being worth more than that rock.”
There remain enormous ironies to this Great Caper of the Quartzite Eight.
For public perception is of a defanged Quartzite Falls with the Upper Salt reduced to a milk run. That could attract new hordes.
They clearly will be no match for Island Rapid, where one man died in 1973, and Reforma Rapid, where another drowned in 1986. And Overboard, Corkscrew and Cliff Hanger rapids were not named for their peaceful natures.
Owing to unseasonably low water, nobody has been tested by the Quartzite Falls in the 14 months since the explosions.
Maybe there was no change and at full bore the falls are as deadly as ever. Or maybe the flow has been changed--and will create new dangers downstream.
“We moved some rock and to look at it you know it’s going to be different,” Stoner agrees. “But I don’t know, it’s still awfully deep on that downward side.”
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The ridge, 21 feet across before it was blasted, sits on the Salt River on Tonto National Forest.