First, the good news.
The Forest Service has a plan to protect the most crucial aspects of Fossil Creek.
That would be the water quality — and the wildlife that have found refuge there.
The restored creek remains one of a handful of travertine-dominated spring-fed streams in the world — along with Havasupai in the Grand Canyon, the spring source of the Little Colorado River in the Grand Canyon — and some place in Eastern Europe. The travertine coats the stream bottom, making the water crystal clear and tinted turquoise.
Even more importantly, the stream has become a precious refuge for not only endangered native fish, but dozens of other threatened, endangered and rare birds, amphibians and other creatures.
In a state where 90 percent of the riparian areas have been degraded or destroyed, protecting these natural qualities of Fossil Creek rightly remains the primary purpose of the management plan developed as a result of the stream’s “Wild and Scenic River” designation.
But now the bad news: The management plan remains starved for resources and lacking in creative solutions to reconcile protection of natural resources with allowing humans to also enjoy the creek.
The permit system cut annual visitation from about 130,000 to about 60,000.
The updated management plan would further restrict use of the stream. The preferred alternative would ban swimming in the wildly popular waterfall pool — as well as long reaches of the stream not adjacent to the established parking areas along the road.
Moreover, the helpful plan to allow ORVs to get down to the creek from the Strawberry side must await millions of dollars for stabilization of the slopes above the road — so rocks won’t roll down onto the road and maybe hit riders. Obviously, the Forest Service has no prospect for ever finding the money needed to improve access from our side of the canyon.
The federal government must think creatively about how to both protect this incredible wildlife resource — and provide adequate public access to public lands.
Clearly, Fossil Creek needs the same level of protect as someplace like the Grand Canyon. The federal government should make it a national park. If that’s too difficult and tangled up with land use politics, then the Forest Service should strike a deal with the state to make it a state park. If that’s too difficult, the Forest Service should look for a private contractor to protect and patrol the creek, while charging fees necessary to accomplish that vital mission.
Fossil Creek has the potential to become one of the recreational wonders of Arizona — and vital to the economies of both Rim Country and Camp Verde. That will require careful regulation and infrastructure necessary to allow people to enjoy the creek without endangering the water quality.
The preferred alternative is a good start — it protects the most important qualities of the creek.
But it’s only a start, because it shuts the public out of this precious public land.