Political pressure continues to mount on the Forest Service to cope with public safety problems along Fossil Creek without simply cutting off access to the wildly popular chain of crystal clear pools, waterfalls and swimming holes.
Local public safety officials have lobbied the Forest Service for years to provide emergency crews with better access to the creek, in the wake of at least three drownings and hundreds of rescues.
Local officials are also alarmed because the erosion of FR 708 down into the canyon threatens to wash out a crucial broadband cable, creating yet another internet and cell phone outage affecting all of Rim Country.
The Forest Service finally responded by warning it will close the Fossil Springs Trail in July, which generates the bulk of the rescues.
That’s not good enough, say elected representatives from the region.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott) wrote, “the decision to close the trailhead is indicative of the management style employed by the Forest Service in the Fossil Creek area, which is management by closure. The negligence of a small number of tourists and visitors is not a good reason to close the trailhead. At other popular hiking destinations in Arizona, such as Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, the negligence of visitors has not resulted in long-term closures such as the one you plan to implement.”
Senator Martha McSally also wrote a letter, this one addressed to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen.
McSally complained the Forest Service canceled a June 11 meeting with community members and public safety officials with less than one day’s notice. “While the safety of my constituents is of the utmost concern, it is vital that the local community, fire districts, county and tribes are involved in the development of the best possible safety plan that maximizes access to the area.”
The public safety and access issues have been festering for several years, ever since the Forest Service shut down the Fossil Springs Road from Strawberry and stopped maintaining it. Rockslides since then have made the road virtually impassible, even by emergency crews. In addition, the Forest Service shut down vehicle access on the Flume Road leading to the springs and even tore out a bridge.
The Tonto Rim Search and Rescue volunteers and paramedics from the Pine-Strawberry Fire District perform most of the rescues. Pine Fire Chief Gary Morris has spent years complaining that the Forest Service actions have increased the time it takes to conduct a rescue from about two hours to more like eight hours, while dramatically increasing the manpower needed.
Much of the debate has centered on access to the chain of springs that form the headwaters of the creek, accessible down the arduous Fossil Springs Trail from Strawberry, which descends around 1,500 feet in about four miles. Even with permits, many people set off down the trail in flip-flops without enough water.
Moreover, Yavapai and Apache groups consider the spring source sacred and favor as many restrictions on access as possible.
Acting Director of Engineering Services Ehab Hanna this spring wrote Morris a letter promising to consult with local officials and community leaders, some six months after Morris wrote a letter of concern. “Public safety and emergency responder access in the Fossil Creek area is important to the Coconino and Tonto national forests. We are committed to working with local emergency response agencies and tribes toward 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 a safe standard.”
The Forest Service estimates it would cost $6 million to shore up the hillsides above FR 708 and reopen the route to both the public and emergency responders. It would also cost $100,000 annually to maintain the road.
Arizona Public Service maintained the road when it operated a now-decommissioned hydroelectric plant along the creek.
The letter offered no timetable or proposed solution, but did apologize for the six-month delay in writing.
The Forest Service continues to study a proposed management plan for Fossil Creek, which has become one of the most beautiful and popular riparian areas in the state since the decommissioning of the power plant returned water to the streambed in 2006. Congress designated the spring-fed stream as a “wild and scenic river.” It has also become a refuge for a host of threatened and endangered species.
Visitation topped 100,000 before the Forest Service imposed a permit system four years ago, which reduced annual visitation to more like 65,000. The permit system also significantly reduced the number of rescues, although people still drown in the creek almost every year. The Forest Service lacks the resources to adequately patrol the creek in the face of the huge summer crowds. The estimated cost of restoring the road from Strawberry exceeds the combined road maintenance budget for the Tonto and Coconino national forests.
The Trump administration has proposed significant cuts in the U.S. Forest Service budget. Moreover, the soaring cost of fighting forest fires every year causes major disruptions in the existing budget process. The Forest Service now spends about $2 billion on fighting wildfires annually, about 60 percent of its total budget.
The Forest Service budget for 2019 totals $4.77 billion, a decrease of $486 million from FY 2018. The budget includes $1.72 billion to manage some 200 million acres and $2.5 billion to fight wildfires.
The preferred management alternative for Fossil Creek would eventually restore access for off-road vehicles down FR 708. However, the Forest Service has no money to make the necessary repairs, even if Gila County agreed to undertake ongoing maintenance.