The U.S. Forest Service has released a new set of alternative plans for Fossil Creek that could drastically limit access to the creek.
The plan includes six alternatives, complete with a two-year environmental study of the impacts.
The plans range from a 50 percent cut in the number of people currently allowed to visit the travertine-rich stream in the summer to another alternative that would more than triple the existing limits.
Two of the six proposals could eventually reopen the road from Strawberry to the canyon bottom — at least for off-roaders.
But four of the proposals would essentially close access to the string of springs that create the creek down a steep, four-mile trail from Strawberry.
Alternative B would impose the most restrictions, with little parking along the river, closure of the Fossil Springs Trail, a virtual ban on camping during the warm months and access mostly limited to hikers. This alternative would limit use to about 540 people a day during the peak months — compared to about 840 under the current permit system.
On the other hand, Alternative F would create a large enough parking area not far from the creek to handle about 2,500 people per day and avoid the need for permits for about the next five years. This alternative would also expand the camping opportunities, but would still close the Fossil Springs Trail — the only access now to the creek from Strawberry.
Alternative E would probably provide the most access to the creek from Rim Country, by reopening the four-mile stretch of Fossil Creek Road between Strawberry and the canyon bottom to vehicles less than 62 inches wide. This option would allow up to 1,500 people per day into the canyon, with 270 parking spaces, more designated campsites and dispersed camping in the two wilderness stretches of the stream.
The Forest Service has posted the draft EIS and management report at http://tinyurl.com/FossilCreekCRMP. It’s seeking comments on the plan between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28.
The Forest Service will also hold a public meeting on the plan at the Pine Senior Center on Jan. 23.
The list of alternatives represents a refinement of a similar list released three years ago, before the Forest Service decided to do a full Environmental Impact Study on the effect of the various plans.
Congress in 2009 designated the 17-mile-long, spring-fed creek as one of the state’s two “wild and scenic” rivers — second only to a 41-mile stretch of the Verde River. The designation required the Forest Service to come up with a management plan to protect the rivers “outstandingly remarkable qualities.” That includes the geology, wildlife, sites sacred to the Apache and Yavapai Tribes and the recreational opportunities.
Unfortunately, the explosion in recreational use has the potential to threaten the other three “outstanding” values of the stream, creating a management dilemma for the Forest Service.
For a century, power companies diverted the full flow of the stream into a hydroelectric plant, which sustained mines in Jerome and homes in Phoenix. But Arizona Public Service agreed to dismantle the power plant in 2006.
That decision created one of the most beautiful streams in the country and a refuge for threatened and endangered species — including half a dozen native fish and 80 other “sensitive species.”
It also led to an explosion of recreational use. The number of visitors rose from 20,000 in 2006 to 90,000 in 2011 when the Forest Service imposed a limit on parking and visitors. The number of visitors plunged to 52,000 in 2017, with an even larger number turned away for lack of a permit during the April-October peak use period.
The draft management report estimated the recreational demand for use of the crystal clear, travertine-tinted chain of pools and spillovers probably stands at 100,000 to 130,000 annually already. However, the explosive growth before the imposition of the permit system in 2011 demonstrated the potential for disaster. Visitors denuded at least 15 acres, left about 12,000 pounds of trash every summer, tainted the stream with bacteria, spooked the recovering wildlife and left hundreds of still smoldering campfires. They also overtaxed volunteer search and rescue efforts with hundreds of missions — including four drownings.
The stream issues from a chain of springs producing 20,000 gallons an hour of 72-degree water, supersaturated with calcium carbonate. The water emerges from the ground under pressure so the travertine precipitates out to form strange rock formations The stream deposits an estimated 26,000 pounds of travertine on the bottom every day in the first four miles below the springs.
Only three travertine-rich streams have a greater flow in North America — Havasu Creek in the Grand Canyon, Blue Springs of the Little Colorado River and Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. Only two other sites in the world can compete — Agua Azul in Mexico and Plitviče in Croatia.
The canyon harbors perhaps 540 plant species and at least 200 known animal species. Like the Verde River, Fossil Creek may have the highest density of nesting birds in North America. Less than 1 percent of the Coconino and Tonto forest land is considered riparian, but an estimated 80 percent of wildlife depend on riparian areas for their survival.
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