The Forest Service may soon impose fees, ban cars and run a shuttle service down the twisting canyon road to Fossil Creek, according to a sneak peek of a draft plan offered this week.
The plan would continue a ban on camping and fires and sharply limit access by cars to protect the creek from the impact of the thousands of summer weekend visitors who flock to the blue-green waters of the spring-fed creek.
“We all think Fossil Creek is our slice of heaven, but we are loving it to death,” said Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin after a meeting this week involving the Forest Service and local business and political leaders.
Last summer, the federal government designated the gushing, spring-fed creek as one of two stretches of wild and scenic rivers in Arizona due to its “outstandingly remarkable values.”
The creek remains one of the most pristine riparian areas in the state and one of the last refuges for endangered native fish and other species.
The beauty and the swimming holes have drawn a flock of visitors to the river, who often leave behind tons of trash, glass and a crowded mess. Before the Forest Service banned camping and fires, rangers every weekend found multiple abandoned campfires left behind by visitors.
Over the last two years, the Forest Service has monitored attendance levels and during some holiday weekends, around 1,000 people travel down the narrow, dangerous road to reach the river each day.
With limited parking and river access, visitors park where they can — often blocking the roadway.
To preserve the creek’s water quality and protect endangered and threatened species that call the area home, the Forest Service hired planning experts to gather public input and create a river management plan last year.
On Thursday, planners met with a small group of Pine business owners and county officials to discuss a draft of the plan.
Highlights of the plan include:
• Limit visitors to the creek during May through September
• Hire a private industry to run a shuttle service during the busiest holidays and weekends
• Ban campfires and camping in the middle corridor of the river
• Prohibit glass containers
• Add composting toilets, picnic tables, trash service, information kiosks and shade structures
• Institute year-round fees
Thursday’s meeting falls on the heels of a three-hour meeting in November where the public debated closing the road, limiting access, charging fees or doing nothing at all.
Forest Service planners said they took ideas from that meeting and drafted a management plan.
The plan falls in the middle of closing the creek and leaving it wide open.
“We are trying to come up with the best solution,” said John Titre, a planner for the Forest Service.
“We are looking at all ideas, so nothing is finalized.”
Lynn Humphrey, another planner, said the Forest Service’s top priorities are protecting the river’s remarkable values, water quality and free flow conditions without banning visitors.
“We are going to have to make some hard decisions,” said Payson Ranger District head ranger Ed Armenta. “We have people on opposite ends of the spectrum.”
The middle section of Fossil Creek, between the waterfall and Purple Mountain, will likely have the most restrictions.
Planners propose placing a staging area either in Strawberry or east of the Fossil Springs trailhead during the summer. Here, visitors would unload from their vehicles and take a shuttle to one of eight proposed river stops.
A shuttle would eliminate vehicles near the creek and allow more visitors the opportunity to visit.
Currently, when the 100 or so parking spots near the creek are filled, visitors are forced to either block the roadway or turn around and go home.
When they choose to leave their vehicle in the road, it stops anyone from coming in or out, including emergency personnel, Titre said.
During Labor Day weekend, Titre said he witnessed a chaotic scene of vehicles stacked on either side of the roadway with only a few feet in some spots to pass.
“I was alarmed,” he said. If someone had got hurt, there would have been no way to get him or her out.”
However, when visitors choose to turn around, they leave with a sour taste in their mouth, said John Stanton, manager of the Rim Country Chamber of Commerce.
“When they drive down there and can’t park, they are mad,” Stanton said.
“If we have control and they know they can at least get down there on a shuttle, they will not be mad.”
For Pine-Strawberry business owners who rely on Valley visitors in the summer, attracting more visitors is a plus.
However, Cindy Maack, owner of Ponderosa Market, said she is worried restrictions will drive visitors away.
“I am opposed to closing the road,” she said, “and I could get 500 signatures by the end of the month of people who oppose it as well.”
While Maack said she is all for cleaning up the area and adding restrooms, she wishes the Forest Service would limit vehicle size instead of starting a shuttle service.
Armenta said he had a tough time accepting the shuttle idea at first, but with limited parking spaces, he doesn’t see a better alternative.
Humphrey suggested that the shuttle service run during summer weekends and holidays, with weekday access unlimited.
Maack said she would support that idea.
“The feasibility of a shuttle remains the big question,” Titre said.
Funding for the plan would also take “a chunk of change,” Armenta said.
Federal grants are available and the program would be implemented in phases, Titre said.
The first part of the plan would include installing an entry gate to control access, limiting use to day only, making the campfire ban permanent and installing composting toilets.
Phase two would be construction of shuttle stops.
Construction won’t start until a final plan is approved, which could take until 2012.
“We will get sued over this one way or another,” Armenta said.
The Forest Service will hold a second public meeting at the Payson Public Library sometime in early April. No official time or date has been set.