The U.S. Forest Service’s 125-day Fossil Creek comment period ended recently, and officials are now tasked with analyzing the nearly 220 responses that came in.
Comments regarding the designated Wild and Scenic River near Camp Verde were wide-ranging, with some people hoping for more infrastructure — including parking spots, restrooms and picnic tables -- as others lamented expansion altogether.
“Many people expressed concern about the impacts increasing the number of people in Fossil Creek may have on natural and cultural resources and the recreation experience. Comments generally expressed strong support for the permit system,” Marcos Roybal, Fossil Creek project manager with the U.S. Forest Service, wrote in an email.
Fossil Creek, which is considered traditional territory for the Western Apache and Yavapai, has become a popular area for hiking and swimming, but visitor numbers increased drastically in the last 15 years, leading to increased trash and threats to species and habitats. The comment period was part of the Fossil Creek Comprehensive River Management Plan (CRMP), which will oversee changes based on the interests for which the 5,200 acre area is known -- be those geological, cultural or recreational.
According to Roybal, a majority of the comments were based on people’s past visits to the creek and related to trash, human waste and vehicle gridlocks in the nine parking lots currently in the Fossil Creek area. People differed most when it came to the topic of recreation, he said.
The current paid permit system allows up to 148 permits per day from May through October; some plans laid out in the CRMP could increase that number up to 500 or more, or could keep it at the same amount.
Another topic addressed in the responses was the matter of what would happen if more infrastructure were put in place -- some worried that would disrupt the more solitary experience they were hoping to get from the area.
Also a concern was the issue of motorized traffic.
Currently, access to different parts of the creek is provided by Forest Road 708. The road is unpaved and provides access from the Camp Verde side of the river. The creek used to be accessible from Strawberry as well until officials closed a four-mile portion of the road from that direction due to falling rocks.
“Some commenters advocated for additional motorized access (particularly along the closed portion of Forest Road [FR] 708), while others expressed concern about noise, dust, traffic, and additional recreation pressure expanded motorized recreational access may cause, both in the creek and for residents living along FR 708 near Strawberry,” Roybal wrote.
Human presence is not new in Fossil Creek, with evidence of use by native peoples 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Several tribes were forcibly removed from the area in the late 19th and early 20th century, and in 1909 the Childs Irving hydroelectric power system was built, channeling almost all the water out of the river for use at the plant.
That is, until 2005, when Childs Irving was decommissioned and the flows routed back into the then-dry river bed. It didn't take long for people to flock to the area — fueled by social media and a concurrent write-up in Arizona Highways Magazine.
"It started to be more than the creek could handle," Roybal said.
In 2009, Fossil Creek was designated a Wild Scenic River by Congress, a classification aimed at putting personnel in place to protect the landscape and manage the rising visitorship. That year the Forest Service began interim management of the area.
By 2015, Fossil Creek saw 90,000 people in the span of a season. The permitting system was implemented the following year.
According to the most recent data, Fossil Creek gets about 8,000 visitors a month within the permitting system. As of Wednesday morning, the Forest Service counted 2,300 permits booked for the month of May this year and a little over 1,000 for June so far.
“[Fossil Creek’s] popularity is only increasing and recognizing the high demand for access and managing that access can balance allowing people to experience this special place while protecting it. That’s been a lot of the problem in the past, there wasn’t a particularly robust management structure. Now we’re looking at what it would take to accommodate a given amount of use,” Roybal said.
The agency approaches managing Fossil Creek in terms of trade-offs, looking at what the potential impact of improving roads or allowing more people would be.
Now that the comment period is over, the Forest Service will proceed with its analysis, holding meetings with Coconino and Tonto National Forests as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State Historic Preservation Office.
The agency's analysis of public and outside agency feedback could result in updates to the Environmental Impact Statement and will inform the decision of which plan of action will be taken at Fossil Creek as it applies to future number of visitors, potential site infrastructure, and road and trail access. The agency will also meet with objectors.
Roybal said he anticipates a final decision to be made in early 2020.