It’s unclear why people continue to leave trash in the water, deface rocks by the creek with graffiti and damage trees by carving into them in Oak Creek Canyon.
What is clear is that the current level of trash and traffic in Oak Creek Canyon has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Red Rock District Ranger Amy Tinderholt said she and her staff have seen the increase and can tell that it's straining the forest's resources. She said the district will continue to implement the current Oak Creek Watershed Restoration project to address the pre-pandemic increases to tourism.
If, however, the current COVID-19 visitation rate continues after the plan is implemented, more changes might be needed.
“We have actions planned,” Tinderholt said. "Do we now need to modify these actions or take additional actions? Is there something else that needs to be done? It is going to take some time to see results of the [Oak Creek Watershed Restoration project] and what it buys us.”
The watershed plan was finalized last year, and it plans to install more parking in some places, protect habitat for the listed narrow-headed garter snake, close unauthorized motorized trails and decommission 12 miles of road among other things.
Oak Creek Canyon normally sees its peak visitation on holidays during summer weekends, but recently every weekend has had holiday-level figures. Trash cans that used to be able to handle visitors are now overflowing. Driving on Highway 89A through Oak Creek Canyon can be chaotic as cars desperately look for, or create, parking spaces near their favorite spots.
The Oak Creek Watershed Council, a nonprofit that protects and monitors trash and abuse of the creek, reports that monsoon storms cause people to rush out of the creek onto the highway this year. Their workers saw these people cause traffic jams as the cars on the two-lane highway have to react quickly to people streaming onto the roads.
In 2015, the Coconino National Forest found that the Red Rock Ranger District visitation tripled since 2005, reaching 2.84 million yearly visitors. Another visitor study has not been conducted since that time.
Other parts of the Coconino National Forest, including the Flagstaff Ranger District, have seen people flock to the forests during the pandemic as long-distance travel is discouraged and people look to recreate closer to home.
Before the pandemic, Oak Creek Watershed Council ambassadors would pick up an average of 100 pounds of trash during each outdoor outing. As visitation has increased, and their council has reduced its public cleanup sessions for fear of COVID-19 transmission, the council knows the trash problem has likely worsened.
Emma Harries, an ambassador with Oak Creek Watershed Council, said as she works to test water for E. coli and pick up trash, she’s seen people’s actions on the road and in the creek first hand. She avoids recreating in the area on the weekend as it has become too chaotic.
“The traffic parked on the side of the road illegally, making their own parking lots, that’s something we saw last year for Fourth of July weekend,” Harries said, as she stood near the creek. “This year, we saw it every weekend.”
Human and animal waste contribute to increased E. coli levels in the water -- which is important to note because E. coli is considered an indicator bacteria for diseases such as Giardia. As more people have been recreating on the weekend, the levels of E. coli have increased with it.
“Fecal matter right next to the creek is polluting people’s drinking source, and it's dangerous when you’re recreating in it,” Kalai Kollus, executive director of Oak Creek Watershed Council, said.
Jason Danoff, owner of Stewards of Sedona, has recently joined efforts to clean up beloved areas around Sedona since the pandemic began. He said his group is also trying to monitor litter left behind in order to better understand the scope of the problem.
“We’re just a small piece of this,” Danoff said at the creek near Encinoso Picnic Site. “The Forest Service just picked up these areas we’re in days before and filled up the entire back of a pickup truck.”
The wild perseveres
Harries walked along the soft rocks of Oak Creek in mid-August as the creek’s water flowed downstream toward Sedona. She continues to find new reasons to love it as she works with the council to protect the perennial creek.
The creek is beloved for its pure and clean water that is a rarity in the arid Southwest. Animals rely on it as a water source, and people rely on it for relief from the summer heat and a spot for fun with families and friends.
Wildlife might be spotted during the weekends, but the wild whitetail deer, javelina and birds usually sneak back in when the crowds are gone.
The creek is nestled at the bottom of Oak Creek Canyon, which was formed over millions of years of fault movement, erosion, and water and lava streams, according to the Forest Service. The water flows south through Sedona, connecting to the Verde River near Cottonwood, before joining the Salt and Gila rivers.
Harries said throughout her time on the creek she has noticed that wildness rebounds almost immediately when crowds are gone.
"While I was picking up trash, I noticed a narrow-headed garter snake in the water," Harries said. "I watched it feed on fish. It's a threatened species.
"I was so fascinated that I could be in the right place at the right time," Harries added.
Trash and traffic
As an ambassador, Harries is an expert at handling and removing other people’s trash and knows she can’t just look for trash strewn about on the ground. Flooding in the summer and winter can raise the water level in the canyon, carrying the trash with it and leaving it stuck in trees above people's heads.
At a cleanup in mid-August, discarded oysters were left at the bottom of the creek near swimming fish. Nearby soft drink bottles, and food and candy wrappers were left behind, degrading the landscape and endangering human and animal health. Animals interrupt their natural diet by picking off human food scraps then increase the E. coli content by defecating in or near the creek.
In doing so, human and animal health and safety is threatened, Kollus said.
“The more people congested in an area defecating and leaving diapers and dog waste behind means a greater likelihood of contamination,” Kollus said.
Oak Creek Watershed Council and Stewards of Sedona hope that through better understanding of what’s happening on the ground, the Forest Service can make better informed decisions to manage the landscape. All three groups, in addition to the City of Sedona and other stakeholders, have been working on finding better ways to manage the trash and traffic problem.
Tinderholt said every ranger should be picking up trash and educating people as they go about their daily jobs. Many, however, have had to divert their time to help with traffic issues due to the increase in cars.
“I think our folks have been probably making less public contacts than normal because they’re dealing with the trash and traffic issues instead of spending a bit more time making individual contacts with the public and trying to be that good education presence,” Tinderholt said.
Spots such as Halfway Picnic Site, Encinoso, Grasshopper Point Swimming and Picnic Area and downstream sites from Manzanita and Cave Springs campgrounds have seen higher instances of trash. Higher E. coli levels tend to be found downstream from these areas.
Stewards of Sedona is an offshoot of a trail guide company, Trail Lovers Excursions. The group has been recording an itemized list of trash from their cleanup events. The group has received multiple rounds of viral success by sharing the list on social media that has been viewed by millions of people, Danoff said.
Their itemized list included as many as 280 categories of trash that translates into pounds of unwanted trash such as leftover fruits, face masks, bras, chewing tobacco containers, vape pens and spray paint cans. Despite their successful work messaging, Danoff said he felt he needed to share the list out of necessity.
“It’s a heartbreaking thing to talk about the land you love being treated like that. You feel like you’re bringing up negativity over and over again,” Danoff said. “What are we supposed to do? If we weren’t engaging in trash pickups I could only imagine what this might look like.”
Despite the overwhelming problem, the groups hope their planned solutions will help mitigate some of the impacts.
Stewards of Sedona suggested bringing three trash bags — one for your trash, the second to reinforce the first bag and the third for someone else. Oak Creek Watershed Council suggested leaving the creek cleaner than you found it by picking up the trash left by others, using proper gloves and gear.
Forest Service, looking forward to the results of their Oak Creek Watershed Restoration plan, suggests planning backup spots if you arrive and your spot is full.
The Arizona Department of Transportation is installing additional guard rails to block off illegal parking spots on the highway. The council is also looking to add pet waste stations to ensure people pick up their pet's waste.
Kollus said the groups are also try to work together and re-imagine their messaging techniques.
“Right now we are working with stakeholders to establish common messaging and other strategies to reach visitors to ensure that they recreate responsibly,” Kollus said. “We all have many different skill sets and capabilities — we plan to build on just that.”
The looming unknown at this point is whether the increased recreation seen across the districts due to the pandemic will decrease or continue at the same rate.
“We’re trying to be careful not to automatically assume this is the new normal that we’re going to deal with every year,” Tinderholt said.
Despite that, the most proactive solution groups could conjure is educating people to prevent abuse and overuse from occurring in the first place.
“People need to take responsibility for their natural resources and fragile riparian ecosystems by stopping pollution,” Kollus said. “We all love this unique red rock landscape and flowing creek — please help us protect it and keep it beautiful.”