Earlier this decade Arizona Public Service decommissioned their Irvin hydro-electric power plant and returned water to Fossil Creek. Last month the U.S. Forest Service held the latest of several public hearings on the future of Fossil Creek in Payson as part of their effort to develop a master plan that will balance the protection of the creek’s unique ecosystem with public access to the creek’s wilderness beauty.
I first hiked to the headwaters of Fossil Creek in 1978 where spring water pours into the creek. I have returned each summer since. At that time it was a little known destination to the general public and only dedicated backpackers visited the spring’s area. These experienced hikers respected the environment; used backpacker fuel-operated stoves, rarely built a fire, properly disposed of human waste, and always packed out their trash. Today, however, a thoughtless public invades Fossil Creek almost daily, and saturates it beyond endurance each summer weekend leaving their trash and human waste behind. One weekend 217 cars were counted.
During the summer, the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue Squad and the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department are called to rescue an injured or ill hiker nearly every week. Because of poor trails and removal of the service road bridge, rescue is rigorous and exhausting and often takes 4 to 5 hours (or more) to complete. This extended time element can be life-threatening to a patient.
To protect Fossil Creek’s ecosystem the Forest Service must ultimately determine the maximum public saturation limits. Once determined, they must match the limit with available parking spaces. Once the lots are full, public access to the creek should be closed. The Forest Service must also enforce the parking restrictions with citations and fines — not warning tickets which are presently issued. Violating parked vehicles should be towed as needed. And finally, a user fee must be instituted to help fund improvements and patrol services.
The spring’s area is the most sensitive with a special uniqueness and has the most to lose. It sets in a narrow canyon and has only about a dozen camping spaces and cannot tolerate large crowds. The Forest Service should restrict overnight camping. They should also restore the decommissioned service road and bridge leading to the spring to allow quick access by rescuers and removal of any injured or ill hikers. This will save lives. It would also allow easy access for the Forest Service to patrol the area to ensure compliance with prohibited campfires just as they had done for three decades until the road was decommissioned.
The stream below the springs has less exposure to the public — except for the first mile upstream from the Irving trailhead. That’s where a waterfall draws large crowds. The major problems here are cars saturating the small parking lot and spilling out to parallel park along the very narrow dirt road followed by human waste. The Forest Service needs to build a permanent restroom at the parking lot.
In the end, any decision on the future of Fossil Fossil Creek will involve a political process that will likely be lengthy and may not include the protection of Fossil Creek as its highest priority without substantial public influence. The same environmental groups that brought the return of Fossil Creek need to step forward to protect the creek from public assault.