Delivering a fresh blow to Rim Country’s struggling tourist economy, the U.S. Forest Service this week shut down Fossil Creek Road for at least another year.
The soaring popularity of the pristine, restored travertine-rich stream has drawn a flood of weekend visitors to Payson, but also resulted in piles of litter, illegal campfires and fears of stream pollution.
The Forest Service is working on a plan to control access, perhaps through the use of shuttle buses, but in the meantime a closure order issued last week will shut off access by road from Pine and Strawberry.
The closure picks up from an order in effect all winter and extends it until April of 2013.
Forest Service officials did not return phone calls seeking comment on the closure.
The closure affects the twisting Fossil Creek Road, which provides the only easy access to the creek from Rim Country.
The steep Fossil Creek Trail will remain open. But that could increase the already substantial number of summer rescues on the arduous, waterless climb out of the canyon. Many people will likely arrive to find the road closed and be tempted to hike down the trail in flip flops without adequate water, a recurrent theme in last year’s rescues.
However, the road from Camp Verde to the creek will remain open. That means a long drive to get to the creek from Rim Country. That could shift much of the tourist traffic from Payson to Camp Verde, since surveys show that on summer weekends Valley residents account for most of the visitors.
However, the closure will also have the effect of preventing Rim Country residents from getting down to the creek during the week, when far fewer people visit.
The order said the closure 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.”
“They’ve taken the sledge hammer to hit the pin on the wall,” said Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton.
“What worries me is that this is coming out of (the Tonto National Forest headquarters) in Phoenix or Washington, D.C. and we have no control. Talk about a door slamming.”
Fossil Creek has become a refuge for rare and endangered native fish and bird species, as well as one of the state’s most popular weekend swimming holes.
Designated as one of two “wild and scenic” river stretches in the state, the Forest Service last year began work on a long-term management plan.
The Forest Service held a series of public meetings focused on ways to control weekend crowds that had reached 4,000 on holiday weekends, mostly in cars competing for one of the roughly 200 parking spaces in the canyon bottom along the river. Much of the discussion focused on starting a shuttle service. The Forest Service also barred camping and fires along the creek.
The Forest Service last summer started limiting the number of cars allowed down into the canyon on busy weekends.
This summer, the Forest Service projected that Fossil Creek would attract 60,000 visitors, making it a rival to the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park as the region’s top tourist draw.
The Forest Service set up a special team to develop the master plan for future use of Fossil Creek, but hasn’t yet released the results of that effort.
The closure order took local officials entirely by surprise.
“I just found out about it on Friday,” said Stanton.
The closure could prove devastating to three tourist-oriented businesses operating along Fossil Creek Road on the outskirts of Strawberry.
Stanton said he has also heard rumors that the Forest Service may close much of the forest in Rim Country in May, due to the return of the drought and dangerously dry conditions.
“Part of the problem in Fossil Creek is of our own making: People have destroyed the place. So now we have to figure out what to do. (The Chamber) has a retreat on Friday to see if there’s anything we can do — at least protest to the Payson Ranger District.”
He lamented the tendency of the Forest Service to take unilateral actions that have a big impact on the local economy without consulting the locals.
“This will definitely affect business. The tough part of this one — the feds are saying, we’re doing it, you’re all screwed and to heck with you.”