Use it? Lose it? Use it and lose it?
The U.S. Forest Service this week began the long process of figuring out how to protect Fossil Creek from the fierce but sometimes careless affection of the public.
The Coconino National Forest launched the two-year process of coming up with a management plan for the resurrected, travertine-rich creek that tumbles through a deep canyon just outside of Strawberry.
The creek was revived five years ago when Arizona Public Service dismantled a century-old hydro-electric plant that had long diverted most of the water from the spring-fed creek.
The creek has come roaring back, and already provides one of the most important refuges for native fish and a host of species — including endangered wildlife like the Chiricahua leopard frog.
However, the deep, crystal clear pools, waterfalls and even water cress swamps behind travertine dams have also drawn big crowds of the two-legged variety, who have left behind trash, waste and untended campfires.
“Fossil Creek is incredibly beautiful and became popular really fast, so it’s no wonder that it’s being loved to death,” commented Red Rock Ranger District Recreation Staff Officer Jennifer Burns. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing its beauty eroded from impacts of tens of thousands of visitors wanting to get close to the clear pools and lush vegetation.”
Congress in 2009 designated the 17-mile-long, spring-fed creek as a Wild and Scenic River. That makes Fossil Creek one of only two wild and scenic rivers in the state — the other being a section of the Verde River. That will include a 9.3-mile-long wild section in which use may be sharply limited and a 7.5-mile long recreational section, which could include campgrounds, roads and other facilities.
The designation requires the Forest Service to come up with a management plan for the creek. The hearings this week launched that process, which could consume the next two years.
Alarmed by an explosion of use and the careless abuse of the river by many of those users, the Coconino National Forest this year banned fires and camping along the river — more or less putting an end to a sometimes rowdy, litter-generating party scene on many summer weekends.
The restrictions reduced the two big threats to the river — untended campfires and human waste from improvised toilets, which could contaminate the otherwise pristine waters of the creek.
“We’re very concerned about the threat of wildfire to the creek and nearby communities,” said Burns. “Last summer, we put out over 200 abandoned campfires.”
The rush of visitors also created significant litter problems — mostly along several miles of the creek directly accessible from the road, which goes from Strawberry to Camp Verde and parallels the creek in a middle section that used to access the hydro-electric plant, which has been taken apart and hauled away.
Moreover, several tall waterfalls plunging into deep pools have attracted swimmers and hikers — including youngsters who like to cliff jump off the waterfalls into the pools. As a result, Tonto Search and Rescue gets called down into the canyon almost every weekend — either to haul out a cliff jumper who hit the water wrong or help a hiker who underestimated the rigors of the steep hike down a trail that comes out near the spring at the head of the canyon.
The workshops seeking public comment on what people value most about Fossil Creek were held Tuesday at the Arizona Game and Fish office in Phoenix and Wednesday on the campus of Northern Arizona University.
The Forest Service does not currently plan a hearing in Rim Country, despite its proximity. However, the Forest Service will take input by phone or email. To get information about the planning effort, go to www.fs.fed.us/r3/ coconino/projects/fossil/index.shtml or contact Lynn Humphrey at lhumphrey02@ fs.fed.us or call her at (541) 750-7158.