Fossil Creek: Close It Off Or Open It Up?

Forest Service plans Payson hearing, as it ponders how to protect unique travertine creek


Danny Bull takes the plunge into Fossil Creek

Danny Bull takes the plunge into Fossil Creek |

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Fossil Creek’s water, geology, history and aquatic habitat make it “outstandingly remarkable” and badly in need of protection as a “wild and scenic” river, the Forest Service concluded in a just-released assessment.

The travertine-rich, startlingly clear, year-round flow have made the creek a world-class stream that harbors scores of endangered and threatened species, the report determined.

Coupled with a public meeting in Payson on the 15th, the report will play a key role in a year-long effort by the Forest Service to decide whether to shut down the road and sharply limit access, create a fee-paying area with campgrounds and rangers or settle for something in between.

The comment period on the draft report officially ended on Friday, but the Forest Service will continue to take suggestions on what makes the creek most remarkable through roughly Nov. 15, when the public meetings on the management plan start.

The Forest Service will gather suggestions from residents on how to protect the restored, 17-mile-long creek at a meeting on Monday, Nov. 15 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Payson Public Library. The meeting will help the Forest Service determine whether to extend its current ban on fires and camping along the river — plus other potential rules to protect the creek from a flood of visitors.

But it will take another year to draw up a management plan for the creek, said Lynn Humphrey, a recreation planner for the Coconino National Forest.

In Arizona, only Fossil Creek and a section of the Verde River have qualified as federal “wild and scenic rivers.” The law requires the Forest Service to manage the creek to protect “outstandingly remarkable” features in addition to protecting water quality and the flow of the springs.

The draft report rated Fossil Creek remarkable on four core criteria, mostly related to the effects of the heavy load of dissolved limestone in the spring-fed creek. This calcium carbonate is leached from a 1,000-foot-thick layer of limestone. The water eventually emerges from a series of springs at the head of the canyon that produce a steady 40-53 cubic feet per second gush of 72-degree water.

The springs deposit an astonishing 13 tons of of travertine daily on the bottom and banks of the stream. The travertine precipitates out where the water grows turbulent, so the stream naturally builds small, curving dams to create pools, waterfalls and spillovers.

Only three comparable, travertine-dominated streams flow in the United States and they’re all in national parks and considered national treasures. That includes Havasu Creek and Blue Springs of the Little Colorado, both in Grand Canyon National Park. The third travertine spring is Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Two other similar creeks exist in Mexico, both protected in national parks.

A power company a century ago diverted most of the water out of the creek and through hydroelectric generators, which fueled the mining industry in the Verde Valley and then the growth of Phoenix. During that time, floods blasted away most of the travertine formations. But in the five years since the Forest Service dismantled the power-generating facilities and returned the stream to the creek bed, the stream has rapidly rebuilt the limestone dams.

The draft report concluded that recreation was “significant,” but not “outstandingly remarkable” — which means it would take a back seat to other values when it comes to making hard management choices.

Thousands of people flock to Fossil Creek during the warm months. Alarmed by hundreds of abandoned campfires, copious litter and improvised streamside toilets that threatened to contaminate the pristine spring water, the Forest Service this year banned camping and fires. That significantly reduced the number of untended campfires, but problems persist. Local search and rescue crews head out to the canyon almost every weekend to rescue hikers and swimmers. That includes cliff jumpers drawn to the 30-foot-tall cliffs and deep pools at a waterfall about two miles up the canyon.

The assessment concluded that almost all of the visitors live in Arizona. A whopping 53 percent come from Phoenix, 19 percent from the Prescott area and 10 percent from the Verde Valley. Although the Rim Country communities of Pine and Strawberry are actually closer to the creek than any other town, only 16 percent of the visitors to the creek come from Rim Country.

The report noted that the creek provides numerous hiking, camping, kayaking and swimming opportunities. Moreover, the creek now offers a unique catch-and-release fishery for two native fish.

However, unregulated recreational use threatens the stream with pollution and wildfires.

A host of threatened and endangered species of plants, fish, reptiles and other creatures have either already returned to the creek or would thrive there if reintroduced, the report concludes. The report notes that only 20 percent of the riparian habitats in the Southwest remain intact, although 80 percent of the wildlife in the region rely on those areas to survive.

For instance, the creek has become perhaps the state’s most diverse refuge for native fish, thanks in part to the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s successful effort to remove all the non-native fish before the power company returned water to the creek. Rare native fish already well established include the headwater chub, roundtail chub, speckled dace, longfin dace, Sonora sucker and desert sucker. Game and Fish also attempted to start populations of loach minnows, spikedace, Gila topminnows and razorback suckers in the creek — but last winter’s flooding may have swept those recently reintroduced fish away. All told, the creek now harbors 10 endangered and sensitive aquatic species, including the Fossil springsnail.

The creek also supports a wild diversity of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians — many of them rare or endangered. The creek already supports 146 wildlife species, but biologists say that number will likely grow to about 300 as the wildlife in the region adjusts to the return of the stream. Already, biologists have listed 83 endangered or threatened “special status species” along the river. Endangered and rare wildlife species now found along the creek include black hawks, southwestern river otters, zone-tailed hawks, American dippers, Bell’s vireo, Lucy’s warbler, red bats, lowland leopard frogs, Chiricahua leopard frogs, and others.

In addition, the creek offers ideal habitat for a number of rare and endangered species, including bald eagles, Mexican spotted owls, Yuma clapper rails, yellow-billed cuckoos and Mexican garter snakes.

The creek also promises to become one of the most vital areas in the state for birds, especially neotropical migratory songbirds in steep decline globally. On the adjacent Verde River, one survey found 1,000 songbird breeding pairs per 100 acres of river, the highest density of breeding birds ever recorded in North America. Fossil Creek has a similar potential, now that the return of the spring has rejuvenated vegetation all along the river corridor.

Moreover, the river corridor also harbors a great diversity of plants, including no less than nine plants that are endangered or “sensitive.” Botanists have so far found 314 different plant species along the stream, after completing only partial surveys. Biologists have concluded that the cottonwood-willow habitat that dominates along most of the creek has the most biological productivity of any environment north of the tropical rain forests.

The report concluded that Fossil Creek also has “outstandingly remarkable” historical resources, thanks to a wealth of archaeological sites, the deep religious and cultural importance of the area to both the Apache and Yavapai and the remains of the remarkable flume and generators built there to generate power.

About 1,000 years ago, the camps of the farmers and hunters who lived in the canyon served as a link between the densely settled prehistoric settlements of the Verde Valley and the more scattered and seasonal settlements in Rim Country.

After those farming people vanished in the 1400s, the area was claimed by a mix of other groups, including the Apache and the Yavapai. The U.S. Army under General George Crook went to war with the Apache and Yavapai in the 1870s, essentially starving them into submission. The federal government then forced the shattered bands to move to the San Carlos Reservation.

However, some Apache bands eluded the dragnet and remained in Fossil Creek, living quietly in that remote canyon. When the whites arrived to build their power plant in the early 1900s, Apaches took jobs as laborers. By the mid 1950s, the power plant had mostly automated its operations and the Apaches, now dependent on wages, left the area they’d occupied for nearly 500 years.

The power plant itself provided 70 percent of the electricity used in Phoenix in 1920 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. However, most of the facilities have been torn out and carted away.

Even so, the draft report lists the creek’s historical values as “outstandingly remarkable,” which means they would take precedence over recreation and other activities in any management plan.

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