The U.S. Forest Service has dismissed out of hand a slew of objections to its latest Fossil Creek Management Plan filed in December by a coalition of environmental groups.
The environmental groups objected to a plan to allow visitation during the warmer months to continue at existing levels — as well as a long-term plan to perhaps reopen the road between Strawberry and the stream to off-road vehicles.
However, Deputy Regional Forester Sandra Watts in a 13-page letter to Sierra Club chapter president Gary Beverly dismissed each of the objections.
Watts insisted that recreation is now just as important as the creek’s other “outstandingly remarkable values,” including the unique geochemistry of the spring, the refuge for native fish, the scenic qualities and the cultural sites and spiritual importance of the creek to the Apache.
The back and forth captured the wrenching trade-offs between the competing uses of the creek — where the impact of 80,000 or 100,000 visitors a year threatens other “outstandingly remarkable” qualities of the spring-fed creek.
The environmental groups have suggested that visitation be cut back to 20,000 annually until the Forest Service has an adequate plan to monitor the financial and environmental impact of the heavy use during the spring and summer. Currently, the Forest Service issues permits from April through October that limits visitors to about 800 per day.
The legalistic, often confusing response addressed the long list of objections one by one, conceding many of the key points of the environmental groups — but then concluding that the current draft management plan follows the letter of the law and requires no modification based on the objections.
For instance, the letter conceded that the Forest Service hasn’t done a financial analysis of the rising cost of rescues of injured hikers and swimmers. Tonto Rim Search and Rescue conducts most of the rescues from the bottom of the canyon. However, because of the poor condition of the road from Strawberry to the canyon bottom, those rescues often take seven or eight hours. This both endangers injured or heat-stricken visitors and exhausts the rescue crews — which rely critically on volunteers.
However, Watts’ letter noted that the Forest Service wasn’t responsible for the rescues and therefore the management plan didn’t have to have a financial analysis of the cost of those rescues — or even address alternatives.
In another example, the environmentalists objected to the not very likely future plan to open the Strawberry-Fossil Creek road (FR 708) to off-road vehicles — as well as rescue vehicles and crews. The objection asserted the Forest Service doesn’t have the resources to monitor the impact of current levels of visitation — and therefore shouldn’t consider any change that would increase visitation.
Watts’ letter noted that the Forest Service doesn’t have the money to improve and reopen the road anyway and so need not consider the objection now. Besides, wrote Watts — fixing the road would cost millions, so diverting money from monitoring current conditions would cover only a fraction of the needed repairs.
In a third example, the environmental groups objected to the existing catch-and-release fishery for native chubs — also sometimes called Verde trout. During the century water was diverted from the creek to run a hydroelectric plant, many non-native fish and crayfish got established in the creek. Before returning the spring water to the stream — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the non-native fish. Now, the stream harbors bountiful populations of at least four, otherwise endangered native fish. The environmental groups said allowing anglers to fish for those native species in the fall and winter could result in the reintroduction of non-native fish — perhaps as a result of the release of bait fish.
However, Watts noted that fishing regulations were the responsibility of the Arizona Game and Fish Department and therefore not covered in the management plan.
Every one of the objections of the environmental groups was dismissed in detail, with a strong endorsement of the legality and adequacy of the existing preferred plan. Congress in 2009 designated Fossil Creek as a Wild and Scenic River and ordered the Forest Service to prepare a management plan to protect its unique qualities. The Forest Service has been working fitfully on the management plan ever since.
The proposed plan essentially continues the status quo indefinitely with a permit system that has reduced visitation from about 120,000 annually to about 80,000. The current plan struck the middle ground between more use and more protection.
Some argued only sharply limiting visitors would protect the wildlife, beauty and water quality of the unique, spring-fed stream — with waters so saturated with travertine that they’ve built a fantasyscape of drip-castle formations.
Others argued that Fossil Creek represents a world-class resource to rival Sedona that could sustain the economy and delight visitors — but only if the Forest Service invested in infrastructure like toilets, developed campgrounds and improved access — supported by visitor fees like a national park.
The adopted management plan falls between those two visions — allowing heavy visitation, but providing little funding for facilities to manage the impact of that visitation.
The plan also offers no real solution for the growing burden on Rim Country search and rescue teams, responding to a rising number of calls to respond to drownings, heat stroke, heart attacks and other medical emergencies in the canyon bottom.
Watts’ letter closes the door firmly on the objections of the environmental groups, who now appear likely to take their objections to court hoping to force a change in the proposed management plan.