The Forest Service has agreed to allow Gila County to clear boulders from the dirt road between Strawberry and Fossil Creek to streamline lifesaving rescues and maintenance of the fiber optic cables serving Rim Country.
Gary Morris, chief of the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department, has led a crusade for years to restore access to emergency vehicles, responding to a string of injuries and drownings in Fossil Creek at the bottom of Forest Road 708.
The closure of the 708 road years ago added up to seven hours to rescue efforts from Strawberry because first responders must travel toward Camp Verde then trek to the creek on 15 miles of dirt road.
The road closure has also made it impossible to get repair vehicles to the one and only fiber optic cable line serving Rim Country’s broadband needs.
The Forest Service decision to allow Gila County to repair the 708 road came after nearly a decade of complaints from Morris and members of the congressional district representing Rim Country. Several years ago, Gila County offered to provide emergency maintenance of the road, but the Forest Service withdrew permission before the work could begin.
After a meeting in August, the Forest Service finally agreed to allow the county to clear the road enough to allow emergency vehicles access to Fossil Creek.
The Forest Service is still considering alternative management plans for the creek, which draws more than 60,000 visitors annually, regulated by a permit system. One of those plans calls for eventually making the 708 road from the Strawberry side accessible to off-road vehicles.
“Fossil Creek has been an issue for five years,” said Woody Cline, Gila County supervisor during the Aug. 20 supervisors meeting. “There have been a lot of rescues and seven deaths. Hopefully ... they could allow us to put our dozers up there for access.”
A rockslide this winter blocked the 708 road that only those on foot could make their way around the debris.
The August supervisor’s meeting hammered out the details of the cleanup.
“Gary Morris has put together all the documentation for this,” said Cline. “He has it down, very precise ... that really helped out during this meeting the other day.”
A letter written to President Trump by Morris earlier in the year seems to have made the difference.
Morris wrote to the president for relief. He signed the letter as the chair of the Gila County Republican Party.
The letter got a response from Ehab Hanna, the acting U.S. Department of Agriculture’s director of engineering, technology and geospatial services.
“President Trump has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service to respond. I apologize for the delayed response ... Again, thank you for writing President Trump,” wrote Hanna in a March 6 letter. “Gila County is a willing partner to assist with emergency access maintenance needs on FR 708 once funding can be secured to repair the road to a safe standard.”
The emergency plan will only open the road to rescue crews and CenturyLink crews who need to maintain the fiber optic line that runs from Camp Verde to Payson and passes through the canyon. Erosion this winter exposed the cable and after weeks of delay the CenturyLink crews gained access. Renewed erosion has again threatened the cable.
The August meeting has still not resolved long-term questions about public use of FR 708, which provides an alternative to the arduous hike down to the spring source. Poorly prepared hikers on that steep trail have prompted dozens of rescues. The problem got so bad this summer that the Forest Service closed the trail.
The Forest Service estimates it would cost $6 million to stabilize the slopes above FR 708 sufficiently to allow unrestricted public access — or even allow small, off-road vehicles to use the road.
The Forest Service study put the annual cost of maintenance at about $100,000.
First responders have focused on the maintenance needed to allow them to get to the canyon bottom and haul injured swimmers and hikers back out.
“I’m delighted we’re able to work with the Forest Service on that level ... to me it’s an indication of more common sense response from the folk at the Forest Service,” said Supervisor Tommie Martin.