The Forest Service released the final management plan for Fossil Creek this week, which mostly promises to keep on keeping on.
Of course, that’s assuming the Forest Service scrapes up the money to repair the roads and trails damaged by mudflows off the slopes charred by the Backbone Fire this summer and reopens the creek to the public in the spring.
The draft of the final plan closes the door on letting off-road vehicles trundle on down the increasingly battered FR 708 — an option in the preliminary plan businesses in Strawberry and many Rim Country residents favored.
The plan also drops a proposed increase in parking spaces dangled by the earlier version of the preferred “Alternative E.” The plan will still allow about 212 vehicles a day into the area from April to September, during the permit season.
Moreover, the Forest Service makes no promises when it comes to improving Forest Road 708. Rescuers use that road to cut the time it takes for the arduous rescues in the canyon bottom. When the road is impassable, rescuers have to drive to Camp Verde and take the road in from that side of the canyon.
But then again, the draft plan promises to monitor conditions and make changes as necessary — which could mean adding parking spaces or could mean cutting down on the number of permits it now issues.
In Forest Service speak this means visitor use may increase if “a determination is made based on collaborative monitoring data assessment, professional judgment, and management observations that river values would continue to be protected with additional visitor use and the infrastructure necessary to support that use; an ongoing capacity to conduct monitoring, assess monitoring data, and implement adaptive management actions is maintained; and facilities and infrastructure that are able to support higher amounts of use are established.”
The public now has 60 days to comment on the new plan. You can see the draft decision at https://bit.ly/3BjV3bU.
The plan reflects the no-win dilemma of the Forest Service when it comes to the legal requirement to manage the spring-fed wonder of a creek to protect its “outstandingly remarkable” qualities. These qualities prompted Congress to declare a 17-mile stretch of stream between the spring source and the Verde River a “wild and scenic river.” And that, in turn, required the Forest Service to come up with a management plan to protect those qualities — now nearly a decade in the making.
Of course, the designation didn’t actually provide enough money to manage the increasingly popular creek — with attractions more on the level of a national park than a Forest Service recreational area.
Protecting the “outstandingly remarkable” qualities of the creek often requires policies directly in conflict with one another.
Those qualities include recreation, wildlife, water quality, scenic beauty and cultural uses important to the Apache and Yavapai.
However, maximizing recreation threatens wildlife, water quality and protection of Native American cultural values.
So the plan represents an unwieldy compromise, with a summer permit system that allows something like 60,000 to 80,000 visitors — largely limited by available parking spaces in the developed recreation areas.
But since the recreation areas amount to not much more than dirt parking with a single vault toilet — allowing more visitors would likely threaten water quality and drive off wildlife, while potentially harming the cultural values.
The resolution offered by the final management plan retains a limit on visitors in the peak season, with no firm promise of more facilities to limit the impact of those visitors.
On the other hand, the plan promises to provide “adaptive monitoring” to provide a basis for changes in the future if necessary to protect those “outstandingly remarkable” values.
The plan will likely satisfy no one. Advocates for more recreational opportunities in a world-class string of swimming holes, waterfalls, and a breathtakingly beautiful chain of spillovers and pools built by the dissolved travertine in the spring water will chaff at the lack of new facilities.
The plan is especially disappointing for Rim Country businesses in Pine and Strawberry, dreaming of the restoration of access to the creek on FR 708 — which appears likely to continue its rapid deterioration.
The plan will also likely disappoint pleas by environmentalists and Apache and Yavapai tribal officials to limit recreational use to protect those other values.
The ever-flowing stream remains one of the few undiverted rivers in the whole state, fed by a 20,000 cubic feet per second set of springs. It harbors 200 species of animals and hundreds of different plant species. Biologists believe that it has the potential to support hundreds of additional species, including many rare and already rare or endangered. Already, the creek has become the premier refuge for many rare and endangered fish – matched only by a stretch of the Little Colorado River in the depths of the Grand Canyon. The US Fish and Wildlife Service removed non-native invasive fish like carp, sunfish, bluegill and bass before restoring the spring flow in 2005. This allows struggling native fish like spikedace, loach minnows, Gila Topminnows, razorback suckers, headwater chub, roundtail chub and Sonoran suckers to thrive.