Well, gee. They wrote a letter.

That’s something.

After several years of nagging and repeated front-page stories in the Roundup, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has written Pine-Strawberry Fire Chief Gary Morris a letter expressing concern about access to Fossil Creek for rescuers and cable companies.

“Your concerns are of utmost importance and they continue to influence the discussions and planning to address access in the Fossil Creek Area,” wrote Ehab Hanna in a March 6 letter. Hanna serves as the Agriculture Department’s acting director of engineering, technology and geospatial services, writing on behalf of President Donald Trump.

It probably didn’t hurt that Morris has written in his capacity as chair of the Gila County Republican Party.

“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.”

“It’s the first time the USDA/Forest Service has expressed concern about the number of rescues and further expressed a willingness to work with local public safety agencies,” said Morris in an email to the Roundup.

Morris has made several trips to Washington, D.C. to enlist support for the restoration of emergency access on Forest Road 708, which was closed several years ago to vehicles. He has also lobbied for restoration of vehicle access to the Flume Road/Trail, cut off in 2009 when the Forest Service removed a bridge. Finally, Morris has pleaded with the Forest Service to improve Fossil Springs Trail so it can handle off-road vehicles to give paramedics and firefighters easy access to the spring source, which has generated hundreds of rescue calls.

Local Forest Service officials say Rim Country search and rescue teams are welcome to use FR 708, which is gated on the Rim Country side of the canyon. The road was blocked by a boulder for more than a year, but a CenturyLink repair crew moved the boulder to get down to the threatened cable.

Search and rescue officials say the lack of maintenance makes it hard — even dangerous — to use the road.

The letter from Washington, D.C. recapped the 10-year history of the curtailment of access, which has turned rescues that once took an hour or two into an eight-hour ordeal, for both rescue crews and sick and injured hikers. Four people have drowned in Fossil Creek since the decommissioning of a historic hydroelectric plant in 2006 resulted in an explosion of interest and visitation. Some 60,000 to 100,000 people visit the creek annually.

The letter also expressed concern about the endangerment of the fiber optic cable that provides internet and cell phone service to Rim Country, which runs up FR 708. The cable nearly washed out. After months of delay, CenturyLink finally reburied the cable — only to have this winter’s rains once again endanger internet and cell service throughout Rim Country.

Local search and rescue officials have pleaded with congressmen, state lawmakers and officials from the Tonto and Coconino forests to restore access for emergency crews. However, the Forest Service is working on a separate master plan for management of the creek, which is classified as one of two “wild and scenic river” stretches in Arizona.

Coconino and Tonto forest officials said they had planned to meet with local first responders, but the government shutdown several months ago scrubbed those plans. They say they hope to schedule a new meeting this month.

The letter from Washington, D.C. supported such a meeting.

“Public safety and emergency responder access in the Fossil Creek area is important to the Coconino and Tonto National Forests,” wrote Hanna. “We are committed to working with local emergency response agencies and tribes towards a resolution. 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 safe standard. We look forward to scheduling another meeting.”

However, that expression of concern has some pretty daunting fine print.

The Forest Service did a study as part of its Fossil Creek management plan that concluded it would cost some $6 million to stabilize the slopes above FR 708 to prevent boulders from rolling down on the road. The preferred plan for Fossil Creek envisions reopening that road to off-roaders, but only after someone comes up with the $6 million to fix it. It would then cost roughly $100,000 annually to maintain the road, Hanna concluded.

Rim Country emergency responders insist it wouldn’t cost nearly that much money to make the road safe enough for emergency crews to get to the canyon bottom and bring people out.

The letter offers no specifics on the other two access problems that have plagued emergency crews. The Flume Trail used to be a road that reached almost to the spring source, where many of the hundreds of rescues have taken place.

On the Strawberry side of the canyon, the Fossil Springs Trail also used to accommodate four-wheel drive vehicles, but has eroded and narrowed to a point that even ORVs can’t get to the canyon bottom.

Hanna’s letter indicated that several Indian tribes — presumably the Yavapai —consider the spring source sacred and have objected to any motorized vehicle access on account of the noise.

Still, it’s nice to get a letter.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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