Rim Country residents reacted with a mixture of understanding and indignation to a Forest Service plan to ban cars from Fossil Creek for half the year at Monday’s airing of a shuttle-bus-based “preferred alternative.”
The plan would require anyone entering the canyon between May and October to pay $5 to $10 to a ride on a private shuttle bus. It would also limit daily visitors to somewhere between 500 to 1,200, probably through use of a reservation-based system.
The shuttle bus would run every day of the week, not just weekends, to ensure the private concessionaire can make enough money to support the service.
Last summer, weekend use averaged about 650 per day — but peaked at more than 1,200 per day on busy weekends.
The canyon bottom where the road runs along the creek offers only about 100 informal parking spaces, but often weekend drivers jammed 300 cars into haphazard spaces.
By contrast, weekday use averaged more like 150 to 200 during the busy summer months.
Most of the local residents who studied the maps and posters the seven Forest Service rangers and consultants put up in the Payson Public Library Monday afternoon expressed a mixture of support and dismay.
Forest Service officials fielded the mix of concern and complaint and assured participants that no decision has been made — and none of the details settled. The final plan will likely not emerge for another year.
Some residents objected to a plan that would keep people from driving down to the creek even during the week, when the area gets only light use. Not only would visitors have to pay the $5 to $10 per person to use the shuttle, but they could no longer use Fossil Creek Road to drive through to Camp Verde or access other roads.
“Something needs to be done,” said Brian Goble of Star Valley, who has been visiting the creek for 30 years. “But don’t limit my access to the forest so some guy with a van can make a profit.”
Dan Branble, a kayaker with a family of five, said even a $5 per-person shuttle charge would mean a $25 fee every time he takes his kids down to the stream.
“I think the shuttles are a good idea as far as reducing the impact. But it’s a tough juggle: If you live here and you already bought a Tonto Pass, all of a sudden you’re getting hit again with the shuttle fees.”
“This is not just for folks from the Valley,” said Dusty Miller of Payson, “it’s for us.”
A Forest Service survey this summer found that on peak weekends, people from the Valley account for 58 percent of the visitors and people from Rim Country only 2 percent.
Other people who showed up for the lightly attended session underscored the need for regulations, policing and limits on the growing crush of visitors on summer weekends.
Tonto Rim Search and Rescue Commander Bill Pitterle said, “I like the fact that they’re paying attention to the area.” He said that last year volunteers conducted 14 rescue operations in the canyon, two-thirds of them hauling injured or dehydrated hikers up the Fossil Springs Trail.
Ross Gooder, who lives on Fossil Creek Road, said it’s hopeless. “I want them to dynamite the road and dynamite the trail — just shut it down. Do I have to tell you how many times they’ve promised to fix that road? Do I have to tell you how much garbage we have to pick up after every three-day weekend?”
He said on busy weekends, cars go zipping by his house in a haze of dust at the rate of one every two minutes.
Other residents hope that the shuttle bus system might actually boost their businesses at the top of the road. Betsy Gooder, who runs Betsy Ross Acres, and Gentle Hands Equine, said she likes the plan. “At least it’s getting some attention.”
She said the placement of the parking area where people wait for the shuttle bus could make or break local businesses, including her horse rental, an adjacent bed and breakfast and the nearby Fossil Creek Creamery.
Forrest McCoy, chairman of the Pine-Strawberry Fire Board said the plan ought to include a Gila County-Forest Service project to fulfill years of broken promises to widen the road and lay down gravel.
“We have to send ambulances down there all the time and it’s just dangerous,” said McCoy. “Even if they close the canyon to cars, we still have to go down there to get these people. The plan is fine, but I don’t see any real improvement in the road.”
The Forest Service experts spent three hours fielding questions and patiently gathering feedback on a plan to safeguard one of the world’s six, pristine streams with so much travertine that the flow builds a drip-castle fantasy of dams and formations.
Lynn Humphrey said the planners will take the latest suggestions into account, before releasing a final plan. The stream’s designation as one of two segments of “wild and scenic” river in the state prompted the attempt to come up with a comprehensive plan, that balances recreation, water quality and wildlife.
“It’s all a balancing act,” said Humphrey of the attempt to allow people to use the creek without driving out the wildlife, fouling the water or setting fire to the lush growth of trees.
The plan divides into three sections the roughly 15-mile stretch of stream between the gushing spring near the foot of the steep Fossil Springs Trail and the merger with the Verde River, near Childs and its natural hot springs.
The upper section from the springs to a popular waterfall and swimming pool would remain mostly natural, a wildlife refuge without trails or facilities. The plan does call for the addition of a helipad near the Fossil Springs Trail to help with rescues.
People could still hike through this upper section and even camp here during the winter months.
The plan would attempt to focus most of the recreational use on a five-mile middle section where Fossil Creek Road runs along the creek. The plan would continue the current ban on camping and campfires in this stretch except during the winter. The fees for entry and use of the shuttle would provide the money to bolster ranger patrols and provide vault toilets, which the concessionaire would maintain.
Finally, people could continue to hike and in certain seasons camp in the long, rugged, remote section below that middle, road-accessible stretch.