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The Forest Service has finally released seven alternative plans for the long-term management of Fossil Creek — all of which slam the door on road access to the creek from Strawberry.
All seven of the proposals would sharply limit access to the creek, which draws about 90,000 visitors annually — mostly from the Valley.
The Forest Service will seek feedback on the seven alternatives at a public open house from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 3 at the Payson Senior Center, 514 W. Main St. Forest Service rangers will set up maps, explain the alternative plans and seek feedback at that meeting.
“Fossil Creek is a unique place in our forest and it deserves to be protected and enhanced,” said Jennifer Hensiek, Red Rock District ranger in the Coconino Forest. “Through the engagement of the public, we hope to make sure we haven’t left out any options or interests.”
However, the seven alternative proposals left out many of the key suggestions made in a previous round of hearings, where Rim Country residents argued for some plan that didn’t essentially shut off their access to the creek.
The crystal clear, travertine-tinted waters of Fossil Creek flow through more than 15 miles of deep pools, waterfalls and riffles. The creek has not only attracted summertime hoards of Valley visitors, but developed into one of the state’s premier refuges for native birds, fish, insects and amphibians — including threatened and endangered species like the black hawk, the Chiricahua leopard frog, the headwater chub and the Verde trout, which is also a chub.
However, none of the proposed alternatives would provide any significant access to the creek from the Strawberry side.
Several of the proposals wouldn’t even allow access down the steep, strenuous Fossil Creek Trail, the only way down to the creek from Rim Country without driving more than an hour to the Camp Verde side, then into the creek on a dusty, twisting, 16-mile-long road.
The only proposal that would improve access to the creek from Rim Country is Concept E, which would allow people on off-road vehicles to drive down to the creek along FR 708.
However, that proposal would also close most of the existing trails, including the Fossil Creek Trail, the Mail Trail and trails that lead up to a popular swimming hole and waterfall in the heart of the canyon. That plan would effectively reserve the creek for off-roaders, who could stop and swim where the creek runs along the road, but couldn’t hike up into the canyon away from the road.
The Forest Service alternatives appear to discard almost every proposal made two years ago in a series of hearings in Payson and elsewhere for preserving access. At those hearings, Rim Country residents talked about their deep love of the creek — and the possible benefit of controlling, but preserving the flow of visitors, who used to come through Pine and Strawberry in droves.
Those suggestions included letting a concessionaire charge for a seat on a shuttle bus down the steep, narrow FR 708, which the Forest Service says it can’t afford to maintain. Some suggested putting campgrounds and other facilities alongside the creek where Arizona Public Service removed a historic hydroelectric plant, in hopes those facilities could generate enough revenue to pay to maintain the road and patrol the creek.
The Forest Service launched its effort to protect the creek after Congress in 2009 designated the stream one of two “wild and scenic” rivers in Arizona. The designation requires the Forest Service to have a plan to “protect and enhance the river’s free-flowing condition, water quality and its outstanding remarkable values.”
Those values include wildlife, fish and aquatics, geology, recreation, water, history and Native American uses.
A succession of power companies diverted almost all of the water gushing from the spring into a long flume to drive generators to produce power for the infant Phoenix. When Arizona Public Service agreed to decommission the power plant and return the water to the streambed, the spring-warm, crystal-clear water immediately created an almost tropical paradise. The Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collaborated to rid the creek of non-native fish. This produced a refuge for native species.
Every year the creek also attracted more humans as word spread. People left trash, untended campfires and human waste as they jammed the narrow, dirt road every summer. Although mostly locals used the creek during the week and in the off-season, the alarmed Forest Service more than three years ago shut down FR 708. The Fossil Creek Trail remains open and people crowd the trail on summer weekends, although the 1,500-foot elevation change also creates the need for constant rescues of poorly prepared hikers.
Every one of the six alternatives proposed by the Forest Service would likely sharply reduce visitation, while making the lack of access from the Strawberry side permanent. The six alternatives the Forest Service will unveil on Sept. 3 in Payson include:
Concept A: A place of beauty and enjoyment.
This alternative would let people still drive in from Camp Verde all the way to the old power plant site. They could still swim in the creek all along the way and hike up to the upper waterfall — a popular swimming hole and frequent site of rescues. People would need a permit to take the road down to the Verde River at Childs, mostly so they could take river trips on the Verde. From the Strawberry side, people could park at the Nash Trailhead on the rim of the canyon and then hike down to the creek on the Mail Trail above the spring. The plan would include new, developed facilities including picnic areas at a new visitor area near where FR 502 heads down to the Verde River and at the old power plant site. Concessionaires might offer equipment rentals, but the area above the upper waterfall would have restricted access to protect the stream and the wildlife.
Concept B: Fossil Creek by foot, hoof or bike.
This alternative would bar vehicles from the whole central portion of the creek. People could still drive in from Camp Verde to the FR 502 and FR 708 junction and then drive on down to the Verde River. However, they’d have to get out of their vehicles and saddle up, get out their bikes or hike to access the core of the creek all the way up to the upper waterfall and Fossil Springs. They would need a permit to enter the creek area — or maybe a slot in a guided trip — either a day hike or an overnight. Some trails would allow horses and some mountain bikes and some just hikers. On the Strawberry side, the road would end at the Nash Trailhead on FR 708. People could hike down on the Nash Trail, which crosses the creek well above Fossil Springs in an area you would need a permit to enter. The plan features visitor centers open year-round at both the Welcome Center on the Camp Verde side and a facility at the Nash Trailhead.
Concept C: Land ethic institute.
This plan would turn the core of the creek into a research institute focused on protecting and enhancing the “outstandingly remarkable values” like the plants and wildlife. People could drive in from Camp Verde to an “Institute Portal” near the junction of FR 502 and 708. School, research and educational groups could use the institute facilities, which would become a center for research on riparian areas. The plan includes a facility dedicated to Native American cultural research. People could only venture into the core of the riparian area with a permit, presumably as a result of their involvement in research. This concept would provide little access from the Rim Country side, with the exception of the Nash Trailhead.
Concept D: Living learning laboratory.
This plan would turn the core of the creek into a “premier environmental learning experience” for both educational groups and visitors. People could drive in from Camp Verde as far as a research station and learning center before they reached the creek. They would need a permit to continue to the creek and down FR 502 to the Verde River or on up the creek to the old power plant site. The creek would have a series of learning and demonstration areas. One would feature history and Native American traditions, one would focus on fish, another on the night sky, another on frogs and invertebrates, one on hydroelectric power and one on geology, with an emphasis on the chemistry of the travertine formations developing constantly along the creek bed. This option would also allow access down the Fossil Creek Trail to the spring and to the Mail Trail. Even with this limited access by permit, the portion of FR 708 between the trailhead and the creek would remain closed.
Concept E: Scenic driving for pleasure.
This plan remains the only proposal that would allow any kind of motorized access to the creek down FR 708 on the Strawberry side. An ORV rider with a permit could go down the road once maintained by APS, down along the creek and come out on the other side. Regular vehicles could enter the area from the Camp Verde side as far as the FR 502 intersection. From there they could go south to the Verde River along Fossil Creek or they could unhook their off-road vehicles to continue on up the stream. Oddly enough, the plan eliminates most of the trails, turning the creek into a playground exclusively for people with off-road vehicles. In a cruel twist, the plan offers the only hope of road access from the Strawberry side — but then shuts down the Fossil Spring and Mail trails — eliminating access for hikers. The plan also cuts off the trails along the creek, eliminating the bulk of the recreational use that now exists. But at least the plan includes several overlooks so people could look down at the creek in which they used to swim. Even at that, the plan calls for permits and limits on the number of lucky off-roaders able to venture down the road.
Concept F: Refugia.
This option would focus on turning the creek into a wildlife refuge for fish, birds, frogs and other species. People could still drive in from the Camp Verde side as far as the old power plant site. They could also hike from the Nash Trailhead down the Mail Trail — but not to the spring. The area between the upper waterfall and the spring would be entirely closed to the public, to protect things like black hawks and leopard frogs. People would pay an entrance fee and management for the benefit of wildlife and native fish would predominate. People could still drive in from Camp Verde and hike and swim along the creek all the way to the upper waterfall. Feature areas would include a nature trail through a stretch of mesquite bosk, one of the most biologically productive desert environments. The plan also calls for other interpretive trails including a canopy walk with a black hawk viewing platform. These large, endangered hawks live on frogs, fish, crayfish and other riparian species. Exquisitely maneuverable despite their size, they hunt along the creek. Because more than 90 percent of the riparian areas in Arizona have been degraded or destroyed, the black hawk is now endangered. About half of the creek would become a botanical area with strict restrictions on access, although guided tours and outfitters might be allowed to enter those areas.
Concept G: Tribal cultures.
One of the most restrictive plans, this approach would turn the creek into an exploration of Native American cultures, with the Yavapai-Apache Tribe sharing “stewardship” of the area. The plan would bar most swimming and overnight recreation, with a ban on glass and alcohol. The Forest Service would set up several interpretive hubs and ceremonial grounds closed to the general public. The public might get to sometimes watch ceremonial events, however. The plan might include some limited recreational sites with things like picnic tables. People could drive in from Camp Verde to the power plant site, but access to the upper waterfall would be limited. For some reason, the plan would bar access to the creek from the Strawberry side not only on the road, but also on the Fossil Springs and Mail trails.