Fossil Creek Road could open this summer after all, if the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Payson Ranger District can cut a deal.
The Tonto National Forest a month ago abruptly announced it would not open the only road down into Fossil Creek from Rim Country this summer due to the dangerous condition of the road and the uncontrolled swarms of visitors.
Rim Country officials feared the closure would deal a fresh blow to the region’s vital, struggling tourist economy, since last year some 90,000 people visited the lush, spring-fed paradise — many of them passing through Payson, Pine and Strawberry.
Now, Payson Head Ranger Angie Elam says the Forest Service might open the road if they can find enough community volunteers to handle the crowds and shut down the road when cars have filled all the parking spaces along the creek.
Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce manager John Stanton confirmed that the chamber is working to set up a foundation that can collect donations and partner with the Forest Service to provide the manpower it needs to manage the crowds on busy summer weekends.
“This is the iceberg tip and what’s beneath it is “huge,” said Stanton of the effort to create a real partnership between the community and the Payson Ranger District. “It’s not just Fossil Creek: It’s a whole new focus.”
He said a new partnership between the community and the Forest Service could yield many benefits, including perhaps reopening the Cinch Hook winter snow play area and other sites.
Stanton said the chamber hopes to set up a group that could collect donations and contract with the Forest Service to provide volunteers.
For instance, volunteers posted both in the canyon bottom and at the top where the road heads down for a series of hairpin turns could open and shut the road based on the number of spots available to park cars in the canyon bottom.
In addition, they could contact people at the top of the Fossil Springs Trail and warn them about the demands of the 1,500-foot drop into the canyon. That could dramatically reduce the arduous and time-consuming rescues that take place almost every weekend in the summer as people without the stamina, water or proper footwear get into trouble on the grueling trail.
“It’s a work in progress,” said Elam of the discussions with various community partners about what it would take to reopen Fossil Creek Road. “We’re very interested in how we can come to a solution to manage that road, given the shortfall in funding and the hazardous conditions.”
The road presents two intimately connected problems as the flood of summer weekend visitors grows. Most of the visitors come from the Valley, drawn by the deep, crystal-clear pools swirling with travertine-tinted water. The stream has also turned into the premier refuge for half a dozen native fish and amphibians, not to mention a growing list of rare songbirds.
The first problem involves the sheer number of visitors, given the limited parking in the bottom along the creek and the lack of rangers available to patrol. Despite a ban on camping and campfires, last summer visitors left mounds of trash and many smoldering fires. Moreover, biologists suspect someone last year deliberately released predatory, non-native bass above a fish barrier intended to protect the recovering native fish species.
The second major problem involves the condition of the road itself. For a century, a power company diverted the flow of the spring that feeds the creek into a flume to generate electricity. Arizona Public Service had been spending about $180,000 annually to maintain the roads into the power generating plant before it agreed to return the water to the creek and dismantle its facilities about five years ago.
Now, the Forest Service doesn’t have the money to clear away the occasional rockslides and remove dangerous rock overhangs before they let loose and rumble down on the now-heavily-used road.
The Forest Service a year ago started a series of public hearings on a master plan to manage and protect Fossil Creek, after its designation as one of two Wild and Scenic Rivers in the state. That plan includes things like setting up a shuttle bus service and charging fees to keep cars out of the canyon and raise the money needed for things like toilets and trash pickup.
However, use of the canyon has outstripped the development of a plan.
The Tonto National Forest shut down Fossil Creek Road outside of Strawberry last winter out of concerns about rockslides. The Forest Service recently extended that closure indefinitely. As a result, the only access to the creek by car lay along the still-open portion of the road that connects to Highway 260 just north of Camp Verde.
The decision not only cut off Rim Country residents from easy access to Fossil Creek all week long, it threatened to devastate many businesses that cater to the visitors drawn to the creek’s plunge pools.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said both the town and Gila County have become involved in the discussions, particularly when it comes to whether they can help clear rock falls and make the road safer.
Stanton said the chamber and other partners hope to set up an organization like the Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, which enlisted local volunteers to help keep the world’s largest travertine bridge open for the past two years despite deep cuts in the state parks budget.
Elam said the Forest Service would need a committed core of volunteers that would provide three to four people during daylight hours Thursday or Friday through Sunday all through the summer.
“We need true commitment: People that are going to actually show up and be consistent with how it’s implemented from one volunteer to the next,” said Elam. “Everyone would be trained and sanctioned through the Forest Service. We’re not going to put anyone out there alone — and they’ll need communication on an hour-to-hour basis, and good people skills so they can calm the crowd and explain why people can’t go down” once the parking spots in the bottom fill up.
Stanton said the hopes the group can establish the tax-deductible foundation soon and work out a deal with the Forest Service in time to save the season for many Rim Country businesses.