Confronted with more than 100 mostly irate citizens, U.S. Forest Service rangers and planners stressed that they don’t really want to slam the Fossil Creek door on Rim Country.
Although none of the seven management concepts displayed on maps adorning the room in Pine featured a reopened Fossil Creek Road, Forest Service officials insisted the final plan might improve rather than restrict access to the popular creek from Payson.
“We don’t want to shut it away,” said Dean Jones, the director of communications for the Fossil Creek planning effort. “We want people to recreate in Fossil Creek. The final decision hasn’t been made. The reason we’re having the public meeting is to hear ideas.”
One of the seven concepts would allow only off-road vehicles on the Fossil Creek Road from the Strawberry side — forcing all other vehicles to use the 15-mile-long dirt road from the Camp Verde side. More than half of the seven concepts closed the arduous Fossil Creek Trail, currently the only way to get down to the creek from Pine-Strawberry.
About half of the concepts would continue to let people drive to the creek from Camp Verde. But a number of the concepts would severely limit public access and recreation from either side. One concept would emphasize Native American uses of the creek, discourage swimming and shut down existing trails. Another concept would turn it into a mostly-closed wildlife refuge. A third concept would turn it into a nature education and research area with sharply limited public access.
The comments from the overflow Pine crowd sounded a near-universal theme: Protect the creek, regulate visitation — but don’t shut down all access from Rim Country.
“Not one of these concepts will fit,” said Rim County Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton.
“They have a bunch of volatile people and they better be ready to manage this thing. Eliminating access is wrong, but we have to control it. You can’t let all those people down there at one time.”
Steve Jakubowski said, “You’ve got to protect it. Setting up a permit system is not that hard: Now it’s a free-for-all, it’s a party palace. I’d like to keep things natural and wild — but as an ORV enthusiast I’d also like to have access from Pine.”
Earl Chitwood, who heads the all-volunteer Rim Country Mounted Posse, said his volunteers this summer staged 14 rescues, at a cost of about $1,500 for each rescue. The Rim Country group performs far more rescues in the canyon than the mounted posse on the Coconino County side — since Camp Verde is much further from the creek than Strawberry.
He said the problem has grown far worse since the Forest Service shut the Fossil Springs Trail. Many Valley residents arrive to find the road closed. Instead, they hike down the Fossil Springs Trail, which drops 1,500 feet in four miles.
“My concern is the trail. Access should be by permit only — by people in condition to hike it. Now they arrive and don’t know that the road is closed. The last four years it’s just gotten much worse.”
Alan Miller said he was initially dismayed by the lack of access from Rim Country in the seven concepts, but felt reassured when the rangers said planners would blend elements from all of the concepts to come up with the three or four alternative plans slated for in-depth study. “I was glad to hear these are concepts not choices. Any of these plans would keep an awful lot of people from going.”
On the other hand, a resident who identified himself only as Paul said protection of the riparian area and the host of rare and endangered species drawn to it should remain the priority. “For 95 years, this place was abused: Now we owe it something. There’s payback that needs to occur. Right now, it’s a fricking free-for-all. We need to put the brakes on.”
The Forest Service rangers and planners listened patiently to the comments, many from people visibly frustrated and angry. But Jones and others hastened to reassure the crowd that the planning team hasn’t ruled out reopening the road — eventually.
He said it costs an estimated $150,000 annually to maintain the four-mile, cliff-hugging dirt road. One lane in many places, rocks often roll down onto the road after heavy rains.
Jones insisted that the planners would seek ways to keep the road open. Suggestions made previously included letting a concessionaire run a shuttle service down the road during the summer, which would eliminate most of the traffic on the road and also relieve parking problems at the bottom.
“If the road is the No. 1 value for people here, then we need to think about how we can get there. The passion we have here is great. Look at all these people. This is great,” said Jones.
He noted that the planning team has scheduled only two public meetings for input on the seven concepts, one in Pine and one in Payson. He said the feedback at the meetings and by e-mail would have a “huge” impact on the planning process.
Jones said the planning team will “blend” the seven concepts and the public comments in the next few months before settling on three or four actual “alternatives”. The Forest Service will then do an environmental assessment on those refashioned alternatives and seek more public comments before moving to a decision.
Some residents predicted the creek could easily develop into one of Arizona’s most popular attractions and concluded only an agency like the National Park Service could effectively juggle protection and recreation.
However, Jones said the Forest Service planning process wouldn’t include the notion of turning the area over to another agency. Any such push would have to come from local residents he said.
Jones said a 15-person planning team will “narrow the concepts down to several alternatives – which will not look like any one of the concepts.”