Members of the Rim Country Riders ATV club met this morning, Dec. 4, with Tonto and Coconino National Forest officials in the Pine Senior Center to lobby for the possible partial re-opening of FR 708 — the narrow, winding, and often dangerous road that leads from Strawberry to Fossil Creek.
Linda Oyas, Rim Country Riders administrative assistant, says at the meeting the ATV club was to present a proposal that would open the road to ATVs and UTVs no wider than 60 inches.
She contends that off-road vehicles of those dimensions would be able to pass one another on the wilderness road while traveling in different directions.
The narrowness of the road and the weekend gridlock is among the reasons Forest Service officials closed the road about two years ago.
Also, Oyas says, “Since we are a non-profit group, we can apply for grants to help maintain the road.”
The Forest Service has struggled to find the funds to maintain the road since the Childs power plant was dismantled years ago. When Childs was operative, Arizona Public Service maintained the road.
Following today’s meeting, ATV club officers and national forest representatives are scheduled to travel down FR 708 to Fossil Creek to access conditions.
Oyas says any agreement to partially reopen the road will have to wait until January when an environmental assessment is completed.
Since the road was closed, the Forest Service has been working on a plan to control access, possibly by using shuttle buses, charging admission or limiting the number of visitors.
In recent years, Fossil Springs has soared in popularity, drawing swarms of weekend visitors, some of whom started illegal fires, littered the pristine canyon and ignited fears of polluting the stream.
The Forest Service order of closure said it would “provide for the public’s health and safety because of the treacherous and unsafe road conditions resulting from geologic instability on rock walls resulting in frequent rock falls and slides into the road. Also, to provide for the public’s and employees’ health and safety considerations of traffic gridlock along the Fossil Creek Corridor.”
The closure of the road was a blow to the Rim Country’s tourist economy and placed off limits a forest road that had long been popular among ATV owners including Rim Country Rider members.
The Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce estimates that in a single year some 90,000 people visit Fossil Creek — many passing through Payson, Pine and Strawberry to the spring-fed paradise.
With the road closed, some continue to visit by making the hike to the creek from near Strawberry. That 3.5-mile hike includes a 1,600 feet change in elevation which has often proved too demanding for hikers not physically fit or unprepared.
Tonto Rim Search and Rescue volunteers, the Gila County Mounted Posse and the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department paramedics, must often rescue visitors unable to finish the hike.