The resolution of the federal budget deadlock came too late to save Monday’s hearing in Payson on the future of Fossil Creek.
So Rim Country residents will have to wait another week or two for a chance to react to a plan to limit access on spring and summer weekends by banning cars from the road that runs along a five-mile stretch of the spring-fed creek.
“The news we were getting on Friday (about the budget shutdown) wasn’t good, so we decided to reschedule. It’s not a cancel, it’s a postpone,” said Lyn Humphrey, who heads up the effort to come up with a new management plan.
The management team will gather public suggestions for another 12-18 months before proposing a final plan to protect the travertine-rich creek — one of two streams in Arizona designated as a “wild and scenic river.”
The plan preferred by the Forest Service would instead provide shuttle buses to take people down to the creek — at a cost. Humphrey said that in other recreation areas such a shuttle service costs $5 to $10 per person.
The Forest Service plan would likely ban cars from May through September on weekends. It might also include a year-round fee, something like the Red Rock Pass system in Sedona.
The Forest Service’s “preferred alternative” is pitted against an alternative proposal that would provide paved parking for about 75 cars down in the canyon and issue permits that would limit visitors to perhaps 300 people per day.
Surveys showed that on peak weekends, about 1,100 people went hunting for a parking space and a swimming hole in the creek.
“We’ve got about 100 places to park down there, but we’d have 300 cars — so people were just parking where ever they could — it was a mess,” said Humphrey.
Both plans would impose day use fees, ban campfires and restrict camping, with a focus on controlling the big weekend crowds in the middle stretch of the river with easy access from Fossil Creek Road.
“Have we settled on anything? No,” said Humphrey.
“We’re really hoping that people will take a look at the plan and tell us what they think.
“We’ll be developing a final plan based on what people tell us.”
Copies of the Forest Service plan and the leading alternative plan are available at http://redrockcountry.org/fossil/
During the early discussions, some people had suggested more intensive development in the key, middle portion of the roughly 15-mile-long creek. That would include even things like a lodge or visitors center or developed campground on a large parcel of leveled land where a century ago people built a hydroelectric power plant, that provided power for early Phoenix. Arizona Public Service about five years ago started to dismantle the power plant and flume that for a century diverted most of the water from the creek bed.
The restored creek immediately became one of the Southwest’s most productive refuges for native fish and many other riparian species, partly because it lacks many non-native species like predatory bass, sunfish, bluegill and crayfish.
It also immediately began to draw human visitors, 60 percent of them from the Valley. Use doubled and redoubled and doubled again. Many visitors left so much trash and so many untended campfires that two years ago the Forest Service imposed temporary restrictions on camping and campfires along the river.
Perhaps as a result, last summer the total number of visitors held steady.
The proposed Forest Service plan would impose significant restrictions on use during the summer — with most of the change focused on the middle section.
Humphrey said planners hadn’t yet come up with a figure for the cost of either an annual permit or the proposed day use or shuttle fees.
However, money from those fees would help pay for rangers who could enforce the new restrictions, including a ban on all campfires and glass containers and most likely a daily limit on visitors, through a permit system.
The plan would allow people to hike both up and down the creek from the middle section with road access. However, those areas would still feature a ban on fires and would provide no trails or other facilities — although people could still camp, as long as they didn’t make a campfire.
The Forest Service’s proposed plan would provide a better trail from the main area along the road to the first, big, upstream waterfall. That waterfall empties into a deep pool, that draws many swimmers. Unfortunately, those swimmers and cliff jumpers provided a lively business for Tonto Rim Search and Rescue Squad members last summer.
The Forest Service plan would also provide for a helicopter landing pad near where the steep Fossil Creek Trail hits the creek near the spring. Rescuers often had to haul injured hikers out from that trail as well last summer.