The Roundup newspaper recently published an article titled “Political pressure grows to keep Fossil Creek accessible” which criticized the Tonto National Forest’s closure of the Upper Springs Trail at Fossil Creek. The article also cited Congressman Gosar’s and Senator McSally’s great concern about the closing.
The Pine-Strawberry Fire District, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, and the Gila County Board of Supervisors were not consulted about the Forest Service’s planned closure. Nor were our counterparts in Yavapai County consulted. We all learned of the closure when the public did.
Neither Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd nor I support such a blanket closure. We believe it punishes the large number of fit and prepared hikers for the one who arrives unprepared and experiences a medical emergency.
Yavapai County Board of Supervisor Tom Thurman said it this way, “Do we close the Grand Canyon because too many people fall off?”
Had I or the sheriff been consulted we would have recommended that the Tonto National Forest implement the Sheriff’s Office Tonto Rim Search and Rescue squads very successful hiker screening process.
For three years, squad members have volunteered to go to the trailhead every Saturday and Sunday mornings, as well as holidays, to meet all arriving hikers. They request to see the hikers water supply to ensure they have at least the minimum recommended amount of water. If the hiker has inadequate water, they provide them additional water bottles for a safe hike.
Hikers without adequate water could be re-routed to stores in Pine — 15 minutes away — if the Forest Service chooses not to supply water bottles.
Squad members also assess footwear and fitness. Wearing flip-flops or sandals is a no-go. Where fitness is a concern of squad members, they politely explain to the hiker the rigors of hiking the trail and the history of rescues. They also provide them with a safety and survival information card which also describes the cost that would be billed to them should they need to be rescued.
Nearly every weekend unfit, or unprepared, hikers are turned away. There have not been any arguments nor physical confrontations.
Over the past three years the Forest Service has assigned an employee to a check-in point at the end of Fossil Creek Road each day to verify permits. That employee could easily be relocated to the trailhead and conduct the same hiker assessment that the rescue squad does.
Simple but effective.