The 50 Rim Country residents who crowded into a Forest Service session to have their say on the future of Fossil Creek fidgeted between fascination and frustration.
“Next to the Grand Canyon,” said Payson resident Hal Baas, “it’s the most alluring place in Arizona — but search and rescue needs some serious, serious help down there.”
“You can’t bottle people up and not allow them activities,” said Payson resident Ron Smith, “but we just don’t understand why a lot of people have recreation that’s destructive.”
“I’m absolutely awestruck, but it’s absolutely overrun,” said Payson resident Dusty Miller.
“I’ve been going down to that creek all my life,” said Strawberry resident Bryce Cook. “And maybe if we’d had this meeting a year ago, we wouldn’t be in this position today. But it was a disaster this summer. I don’t want to outlaw the whole place to everybody, but if these people come into my back yard and can’t be respectful, then maybe we should outlaw everybody.”
“You can’t outlaw stupid,” interjected one other participant glumly.
The Forest Service hosted the first Payson meeting in its elaborate process to come up with a plan to protect Fossil Creek, one of two federally designated “wild and scenic” rivers in the state.
The nearly three-hour session brainstormed and debated the creek’s future, with suggestions ranging from closing off the road to sharply limiting access to charging fees and building campgrounds to raise money to pay for improvements and patrols.
Planning experts hired by the Forest Service hosted the meeting to gather input for a master plan for protection and development, with results due in about 18 months. In the meantime, the Forest Service will continue to ban camping and campfires along the creek, said Payson Ranger District head ranger Ed Armenta.
Fossil Creek rose from the dead five years ago when Arizona Public Service shut down a historic hydroelectric plant and returned the travertine-rich flow of water to the creek.
The creek immediately became a refuge for native fish and assorted endangered species, as the chemistry of the dissolved limestone in the spring-fed creek set about rebuilding the elaborate dams and drip-castle formations. The stream deposits some 13 tons of limestone every day, building curving dams that create a great chain of pools and weird draperies of stone on the spillovers and waterfalls.
Visitors flood to scenic creek
The resurrection of the creek has also lured a rising tide of visitors. A weekend survey in August counted 217 cars and 642 people along the creek, 53 percent of them from Phoenix and surprisingly few from out of state. That included a large contingent of people who arrived with coolers of beer to party.
According to a survey, a large number of visitors also included low-income, low-education, often minority visitors looking for a free swimming hole and an escape from the Valley’s swelter. The Forest Service consultant said few of these visitors have attended the hearings on use of the creek.
That weekend survey found few residents from Rim Country, although Strawberry and Pine are the closest large communities.
“If you want to know why you didn’t find many of us down there on a weekend in the summer, it’s because we know better,” said Miller, who hikes the creek frequently.
On the weekdays, visitors encounter only a handful of other people — most of them savoring the beauty, the stream and the chance to hike and swim, the consultant said.
The Monday night meeting at the Payson Public Library drew many volunteers with search and rescue units, which had to head into the creek almost every weekend this summer to help injured, lost or exhausted hikers and swimmers.
“They go down there and play all day and drink beer, then they try to hike out in flip-flops and bathing suits with that full afternoon sun on the trail — they’re just not prepared for the hike out,” said Hal Baas, a former Payson Planning Commission chairman who also volunteers frequently for Rim Country search and rescue operations.
Many of the rescues have centered on the Fossil Creek Trail, which descends about 1,500 feet to a point near the headwater springs that produce nearly a million gallons of water an hour.
“Portions of that trail are steeper than the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon,” said Miller.
Search and rescue volunteers urged the Forest Service to improve that trail and put up signs warning that it’s “extreme” not “moderate,” as noted in some of the published information about the trail.
The long, open-ended process veered into intermittent chaos, as the meeting broke up into smaller groups trying to work through a daunting list of issues and priorities, culminating in an effort to put colored stickers on giant maps of the most heavily used portion of the stream — a roughly five-mile middle reach centered on the old power plant where the road hugs the creek.
All the groups struggled with a common dilemma — how to keep the creek open to public use without ruining it.
Working in accord with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Forest Service consultants have already concluded that the river has several “outstandingly unique” qualities that must remain the top priority in any protection plan.
The roughly 17 miles of creek between the springs and the Verde River remain one of the most unique travertine-rich streams in the world, matched only by Havasupi Creek in the Grand Canyon. The creek also represents one of the few surviving healthy, undammed cottonwood willow riparian areas in the state, which biologists say is the most productive biological system north of the rainforests. As a result, the creek now shelters half a dozen endangered species, including native fish driven to the brink of extinction elsewhere.
Need to control destructive behavior
Most participants stressed the importance of finding some way to control the destructive behavior of the big weekend crowds.
Some said that would demand closing down Fossil Creek Road, which connects to Highway 260 in Strawberry with switchbacks down into the canyon, crosses the creek near the dismantled power plant and eventually ends up in the Verde Valley.
However, many participants worried about the effect of such a closure on tourism and business in communities like Pine and Strawberry.
So many of the participants instead favored some other approach to controlling the destructive excesses of visitors.
Some suggested a $5 day use fee and perhaps a permit system to limit the total number of people allowed into the canyon in any one day. The Forest Service could use the money from the fee to hire enough rangers to enforce the ban on fires and camping and littering.
Some suggested fee-charging campgrounds and permanent composting toilets — perhaps on the rim of the canyon near the Fossil Creek Trailhead or even in the flat area in the canyon bottom where the power plant once stood.
Some suggested other ideas, like fees to ride shuttle buses from parking lots outside the riparian area, making the canyon a wildlife refuge, focusing on educating the public about conservation of riparian areas and more elaborate, revenue-producing facilities that would generate the money necessary to patrol and protect the creek.
Most of the participants favored developing camping and day use facilities in the already heavily used middle section of the creek, as a way to concentrate and regulate use.
People ignore barriers, signs
Several of the Forest Service rangers present, commented on the difficulty of controlling use, given their sharply limited resources. “People will knock over concrete barriers, hook up chains to signs on six-inch posts and yank them out with their trucks,” said one ranger. “All kinds of things happen.”
Stephanie Landers, said “one night we went down there we ran into an actual Rave. They had a cottonwood tree hung with Christmas tree lights and a DJ and were all getting wasted to the point that they didn’t much care where they were going to the bathroom.”
Baas said that only permits, fees and regulations can protect the creek once word gets out about its incredible beauty.
“It’s like the Grand Canyon, but it has dozens and dozens of trails,” while Fossil Creek has only a few. “Unless there’s some sort of numbers control, I don’t think you can protect the beauty,” he concluded.