Long lines of vehicles park up and down Highway 89A through Oak Creek Canyon as hundreds flock to enjoy the water.
It’s a common site throughout the summer, and increasingly in the off-season as well, but it’s one that conservationists and state officials say has created some real ecological problems for the Oak Creek corridor.
This week, a group of Arizona Conservation Corps (AZCC) members completed the second phase of a project that officials hope will rehabilitate many areas along the corridor that have been hit hard by visitors, improve water quality in the creek and protect habitat for the threatened narrow-headed garter snake.
The project, a collaboration between countless groups including the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, National Forest Foundation, Coconino National Forest’s Red Rock District and the AZCC, seeks to close hundreds of unofficial social trails that crisscross the area between the highway and the creek.
Sporting their hard hats and tan AZCC uniforms, half a dozen young people unloaded large rocks from the bed of a pickup truck Wednesday morning.
As employees of nearby Slide Rock State Park waved traffic by, the crew stacked the rocks under the state park's fence in areas where visitors have previously used to scramble through and descend to the creek.
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Over the last year, AZCC crews have addressed nearly 200 social trails along the creek corridor, said Ron Tiller, a scientist with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality who has been working on Oak Creek for about three years.
Tiller said in April of 2020, he and Jake Fleischman with Natural Channel Design -- which has also been brought on to assist with the effort -- cataloged and mapped close to 340 social trails within Oak Creek Canyon.
“We pretty much walked the whole thing,” Fleischman said.
The trails largely cut directly from the road to the creek, often down steep escarpments causing significant erosion issues, and through patches of poison ivy, as visitors seek the fastest route to the water after parking along the road.
In one area, Tiller said, they cataloged 47 individual trails that visitors had cut to the creek within just a quarter-mile stretch.
The trails and foot traffic only increase erosion of sediment into the creek, and often contribute to outbreaks of E. coli in the creek as human waste left by visitors is swept into the water.
Last year the Arizona Department of Transportation also sought to limit where visitors could park along the stretch of 89A, installing new guardrails in several areas. The agency cataloged close to 600 parking pull-offs along the road, meaning that for about every two parking spots, visitors had cut a new trail to the creek.
In response, AZCC teams have installed low fencing and placed thick blankets of cut juniper limbs along the edge of pull offs, not only covering the unofficial trails from view but make the areas more difficult to navigate, and give new vegetation time to grow in.
On the right path
At the same time, the crews are also making improvements to other trails with the intention of leaving those open so there are still some ways to get to the creek. So far, close to 40 of the 200 trails they have worked on will remain open.
On those trails, Fleischman said, crews are largely stabilizing the trails to reduce erosion and at times working to make them safer.
All that doesn’t guarantee that the unofficial trails won’t continue in the area, said Sasha Stortz, Arizona program manager for the National Forest Foundation. But it does give visitors the opportunity for to recreate responsibly, she said.
“People mostly want to do the right thing, so we can help people do that,” Stortz said. “Protecting this place that people adore.”
Additionally, Stortz said if they are successful they believe the work will prevent about 30 tons of sediment, or about three dump trucks, from being eroded into the creek each year.
Teller said he also believes the work will impact the likelihood of E. coli outbreaks in the creek, allowing people to recreate safely without getting sick.
On top of that, by concentrating the use in fewer areas, they hope to reduce the overall impact to the ecosystem and improve habitat for the narrow-headed garter snake.
Emma Carlson, assistant crew lead for the AZCC team that has been working on the project, said they have seen several of the snakes as they have been working in just the past week. Carlson added that it has been a good feeling to know the work their doing is actively part of protecting the species’ habitat.
Nonetheless, the project has not been without its challenges. Working within Oak Creek Canyon has proven to be logistically difficult and traffic is never not a concern.
On top of that, with the second phase of the project coming to an end, they are now looking at ways to fund the third phase of the project.
So far, funding has been coming from a variety of places including the state, the National Forest Foundation and REI Co-op.
Teller said depending on the funding they get, they hope to have crews back to work in spring or fall of 2022.
Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund.