Trampled by tourists


In the five years I've been an environmental journalist, and during the previous several seasons I worked in conservation, helping manage and mitigate recreational impacts on public trails in Colorado, I've often heard the argument that maintaining a constituency for environmental protection depends on getting as many folks as possible out into the places most in need of help.

On one level, I agree deeply. Like many other people I know, I would not have taken up my current post, or indeed, many others past held, if I had not had that chance to go on a first-ever backpacking trip in the Pasayten Wilderness in Washington's north Cascades, gotten to explore the mindbogglingly open plains of eastern Wyoming and Montana as well as innumerable national parks on family road trips, or had easy access to a vast trail system in the foothills just outside of Boulder, Colo., where I was born and raised.

However, past work and reporting has revealed again and again that recreation can itself become an extraordinarily destructive force; one that, at least in the most hard-hit places, turns the "recreational access = conservation" argument squarely on its head, and suggests caution in applying it to every government attempt to limit access to a much-loved spot.

Many of Colorado's 54 mountains over 14,000 feet are popular enough to convey this lesson, as I've written in the past. But I'm not sure I've ever seen an example quite as startling as that of Fossil Creek,  in Arizona's Mazatzal Mountains near Strawberry. As Michelle Nijhuis wrote for HCN back in 2007, the travertine-laced stream underwent a remarkable transformation after the controlled removal of century-old hydropower dams that had blocked its flow. Native fish flourished, amphibian habitat improved ... and, unsurprisingly, the restored deep-blue bowls and pools that pearl the waterway began attracting large numbers of heat-weary folks from not-so-far-away Phoenix and Prescott, as Jay Canode reported in our most recent piece on the place.

The resulting impacts have been eye-popping, especially during this last season: Check out these images and facts from a Forest Service slide presentation on the area that a freelance photographer recently sent our way. They make the place look more like an overcrowded rock concert than an oasis in the desert (note -- some of these pictures are pretty gross, so the more squeamish among readers might want to abandon ship here):

First, this is one of those oh-so-luscious travertine pools -- which attract thousands upon thousands of folks for sight-seeing, swimming, camping, hiking, etc.

This is the aforementioned crush of visitors. Once the trailhead parking lot for a popular waterfall is filled (which happens by 9 a.m. most weekends), "the row of cars can surpass 200 vehicles and extend over a half-mile," the presentation says. Since the road is only 25 feet wide, this narrows it to one lane, causing traffic jams and inhibiting emergency access (there is at least one search and rescue call PER DAY to the area during peak season).

At least 5 rangers are needed to control traffic on days busy enough that the road needs to be closed occasionally -- the trigger point is when parked cars reach 500 feet down the road past the Waterfall Trailhead lot -- to ensure the single lane stays open and the road doesn't end up looking like this. This leaves just one ranger to patrol the creek itself, which can see upwards of 1,200 visitors per day. Road closures were apparently necessary every weekend since July 4. On Saturdays, the presentation says, an average of 100 vehicles were turned away; on Sundays, 75.

In the 2011 season, all of these cars translated to a 25 percent increase in visitation this year over the 2010 season. On Labor Day weekend alone, nearly 8,000 people visited Fossil Creek; 75 percent of those used the Waterfall Trail.

All of those people can translate into A LOT of waste, one of the problems rangers have most focused on fixing through educating visitors about littering and handing out garbage bags. They've had results, but the problem still looks pretty bad.

There's a lot of other waste, too: So many people visit the area on some weekends that they, er, fill up the portable toilets, which leads to (yuck!) human feces and toilet paper scattered across the ground, as shown here:

Given the amount of attention this place already receives I suppose it's no surprise that Coconino National Forest Red Rock Ranger District spokesperson Connie Birkland tried to dissuade me from writing about the area when I called to ask for permission to use these photos. Media coverage just seems attract more people, she explained. Even when the photos are as gnarly as these? I wondered. Yes,  she said, even then.

Hopefully this post doesn't do any harm. What these images do suggest to me is that the Forest Service -- the creek is shared by the Coconino and Tonto national forests -- wouldn't be out of line to take some pretty draconian steps to protect this unique patch of desert and the quality of users' experiences there. If the proposal the agency is in the early stages of working up for the area (required by Fossil Creek's Wild and Scenic River status) is any indication, officials are at least headed towards limiting access in some spots, looking into the feasibility of a shuttle system that would control both visitor flow and end traffic jams. Charging fees throughout the area and making the most popular spots day-use only are also on the table. Whether it goes far enough is, I suppose, an open question. I'd be interested to hear what you think, especially if you've been to this place yourself. To find out more about the Wild & Scenic River Comprehensive Management Plan proposal, visit the official planning webpage here. A draft environmental assessment should be out early next year, and a final guiding document is expected by early 2013, Birkland says.

Sarah Gilman is High Country News associate editor.

Photos and facts drawn from the Forest Service Powerpoint, "Fossil Creek_interim_measures_rec_impacts_9-20-2011_USFS.pdf"

Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
Nov 22, 2011 08:47 AM
This sort of thing is all too common in the West, and is really bad in the mountains above LA too.

The USFS response is usually to raise fees (and sometimes increase maintenance and enforcement a little bit) to reduce the number of people using the open space. This has the added 'benefit' of keeping the poor out, who tend to be less educated as to why it's bad to leave trash everywhere in the woods. I don't think this is the best way to do things, though. To me this problem screams out that we need much more open space available to the public... we need to restore ruined urban waterways so people can enjoy them... and we need education and awareness for the people enjoying the outdoors. Anyone out there loves being outside, and if you show them why littering is a bad idea, I think a lot of them will change their ways.

There's another issue too. USFS does many good things, but they aren't really set up for managing visitors. There is a proposal to put much of the Angeles National Forest under the jurisdiction of the Park Service, which specializes in recreation and outreach. I think this makes more sense than trying to change the Forest Service. Of course, we also need better funding. The demand is clearly there, but public lands require adequate public funds.

To those who think we can't 'afford' to fund recreation and conservation, please see and try to find the amount of government money spent on these two things.
One Fly
One Fly Subscriber
Nov 22, 2011 04:30 PM
Visiting the Phoenix area a bunch in the middle to late 80's and living there for a short period as well I found the people who live there treat the desert like shit.

I guess then charge what it takes to care for the place and if that means limiting numbers - fine. I'm not one bit surprised.
Douglas A. Richardson
Douglas A. Richardson Subscriber
Nov 22, 2011 09:09 PM
Not so long ago, I'd cruise up 87 to Strawberry from Pine. Just a short five minutes. I'd join the regulars at the Strawberry Lodge Cafe, order breakfast from Adrianna, and read the paper. About once a week I'd head left down Fossil Creek Rd to the drop into the Verde River canyon. I'd pass the small wooden sign pointing to the trail to Fossil Creek. Never any cars there. Hiked back in a couple of times, but the creek was never more than a seasonal trickle. Usually headed down into the gorge to stop at one of many secluded spots down below. So now - I guess - its good news, bad news. Good news: a remarkable coalition effort returns the creek to an amazing travertine wonderland. The bad news you revealed in the article. Now it is "restored" but cursed by the trampled and abused state of popularity. Who IS in charge here? Pretty discouraging. How long before someone tries to park too close to steep cliff where the road turns into the gorge? Who'll warn them? Who will listen?
Pam Clark
Pam Clark
Nov 23, 2011 11:36 AM
I haven't been out to Fossil Creek in many years, and this is only one reason why. A co-worker and her husband were camping out there some years back right after they began publicizing it, and he was shot sitting by the campfire. Luckily the bullet had already traveled some distance and hit his metal coffee cup instead of his chest behind it. They never found out who fired the shot. Just some random moron shooting from the road. So sad to see what was once a wonderful local hangout, where we swam and hiked regularly, turned into what it has become.
Bill Gore
Bill Gore Subscriber
Nov 23, 2011 04:41 PM
I am really shocked and saddened to see what has become of Fossil Creek. I used to visit the Verde hot springs about 20 years ago, long before the removal of the flume, and camped once or twice near the creek above the dam. There were no other people around. One memorable night featured a wild monsoon storm AND a pack of javelina's trying to bust into my tent. Wild! The situation is now completely out of control and fully justifies a permit system with gate-restricted access. I guess the good news is that people really do want to get off the couch and outside, even in Phoenix (yeah-I used to live there, I'm in agreement with One Fly). The main trailheads for the Superstition Mountains (an amazing area to hike/backpack) are now fee-permitted parking only, and since 98% of visitors will not walk more than 0.2 miles from their car, you pretty much have a vast, beautiful area to yourself.
Jim Cleary
Jim Cleary
Nov 24, 2011 08:12 PM
Thanks for this unfortunately necessary article, and for being so forthright in telling us about Fossil Creek. Don't worry about this article potentially contributing to the crowding there, because it is more likely to actually discourage visitors. This article being my only intro to Fossil Creek, I have already made a mental note to never, EVER, go out to visit the place! I'd prefer to see a city park than a spoiled natural jewel like Fossil Creek. Clearly, the authorities need to limit access, perhaps both by charging fees and by building a traffic turnaround well away from the area, miles away. In decades of backcountry hiking and traveling, I have repeatedly observed that two-legged varmints rarely put in the effort to get to the backcountry. The need to work for access is a great filter for sorting out those selfish dimwits who would only despoil nature.
Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
Nov 27, 2011 08:27 AM
Why is everyone calling for feeds and limited access rather than expanded access to additional areas? People don't drive hours and fight crowds for a chance to despoil nature. It's plenty easy to do that without leaving the city or even your home. They are there because they seek out the beauty of nature, and they damage it because they are ignorant and don't understand, not because they are malicious.

If you increase fees and limit access, you will preserve this canyon in the short term. In the long term, the urban poor will lose their access to nature. It will become, in more populated areas, yet another plaything of the rich. But, with a few exceptions, the rich in this country don't have a history of being a good steward of nature. Eventually the rich will tire of their toy, and the middle class and poor will have lost the love of nature, and there will be no political or financial support for conservation. In the long term, the canyon will become at best a private resort limited to wealthy people, and at worst, just another subdivision. Limiting access to public land to the wealthy is the first step towards loss of our public lands altogether.

As Jim said, one can find the beauty of nature in a well-designed city park, not only in the 'wilderness'. But the comment goes awry with the demand for restricted access. Instead, we need to increase access to more natural areas (and semi-natural areas) closer to cities. We need to restore our waterways so people don't have to cram into one small pool because every other river is either too polluted to swim in, or is dry. We need education, and enforcement to punish those who won't listen. Instead of fees that exclude based on financial status, what about making money by ticketing those who break the law?

It's understandable that you want to protect a place you love... but if you care about it in the long term rather than just the short term, gates and increased fees aren't going to get you where you want to be.
Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
Nov 27, 2011 08:29 AM
sorry, feeds = fees
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Nov 27, 2011 01:12 PM
Hi Charlie-- Good points. The trouble is, there is plenty of access to public land elsewhere in this region, and it's well used. I can't comment on city parks, but I think that's a pretty different kind of experience than what you'd see here, with opportunities for swimming in natural cerulean pools and cliff-jumping. A place this beautiful and unique is going to be a huge draw regardless of how many opportunities there are closer to home. Is a $10 fee really going to break the bank for anyone who's already found the time and money to drive 2 hours from one of the surrounding urban areas to this spot? It seems like a lack of leisure time, lack of disposable income to spend to get there in the first place, etc. would be much more of a deterrent already. Also, if you cast the fee idea aside and just talk about a permit system that limits the number of users allowed in at one time, how does that exclude the poor?


Sarah Gilman
HCN associate editor
Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
Nov 27, 2011 02:28 PM

There's just something about charging fees for access to public land that bothers me. I know it makes sense in big national parks with a ton of interpretive displays and staff, but besides that, if it's 'our' public land, how is it fair to charge any American citizen to visit their own land... especially when corporations get free rein in all too many parts of our public land? I've discussed this with other conservation-minded people and they tell me this is my 'libertarian streak' speaking. But, I don't want people to be able to do 'anything they want' to the land - just to access it in non-harmful ways. The problem is, the above logic is taken to the extreme when people want to drive ATVs where they shouldn't, etc.

If a 10 dollar fee isn't dissuading people from visiting, then it isn't fulfilling the stated purpose of decreasing the number of visitors. If it DOES decrease the number of visitors, it seems logical that it would disproportionately affect those who don't have a lot of money. And, USFS likes to say they will put fee money directly into maintaining recreational areas, but that isn't always what happens. With the so called 'Adventure Pass' in southern California, there were promises for improved facilities, more rangers on the ground, etc, but what actually happened was they used the Adventure Pass money to make up for a general funding cut, and nothing got better. Not sure who's fault it was, perhaps not the National Forests involved, but either way there's no real way to guarantee the money will actually be used for something beneficial... and past history actually shows the opposite often happens. Facilities on the San Bernardino, Angeles, and Los Padres forests are still falling apart, funding gets worse and worse, employees are laid off or not replaced when others retire, and any time there is a fire large sections of the forest get closed for months if not years, in part due to lack of resources for repairs. As for a non-fee based permit system... well, it could work, I guess. It's not ideal, and could be an additional cost to manage, but maybe it's the only choice we have.

Arizona is huge and it certainly seems like there is room for everyone. People do flock to water and it doesn't help that the few rivers they do have were largely dried up by misuse of water - if everyone in the Western cities got rid of their lawns, for instance, we could put a huge amount of water back in the creeks. It also just speaks to how people in the West relate to the land. Here in Vermont, people love and spend much time in the forests, even in the winters which are arguably as harsh as Arizona summers, only in 'reverse'. But, most people out West don't seem to value the desert in the same way, or don't understand it. Maybe it's just because the culture hasn't yet adapted to the land... American culture hasn't been there as long as in New England, and the people who lived there before the Americans have all too often been killed off or driven away (though this is of course not true in all of AZ).

As for city parks, I was thinking less of the water-sucking lawn monocultures I see in most Western cities, but more of a desert equivalent of Frick Park in Pittsburgh or Central or Prospect parks in New York - a park with heavy human use and with the presence of landscaping and structures, but with some of the native habitat intact, and with an actual connection to ecosystems, cultures, water, histories of the city they are in... There isn't much of that out West. To some extent, Griffith park in LA is like that, but even still, it's got as much space covered in exotic trees that need water, and lawns, as anything else, and the chaparral is just stuck on the top of the mountains.

Hard questions, no easy answer. Thanks for listening to my viewpoint!

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Nov 29, 2011 06:05 AM
Fossil Creek for the 1%?

The irony it burns. A creek system restored more closely to it's natural condition by litigation from the Center for Biologic Diversity, America's own eco-Taliban, is loved to death by "tourists".

Why the pejorative "tourist" is applied to people who live in the area I don't know. Ten dollars does make a difference. It makes a difference to a large and growing segment of our country who have just as much if not more need to enjoy the outdoors as anyone. Not everyone can jet off for fly fishing in Idaho, or body surfing in Hawaii.

Public lands need to be funded once again with public money so that they are available to ,,, well,,, the public. Maybe we need twenty more Fossil Creeks, not restrictive access so only the right sort of people use the resource.
Jennifer A Johnsrud
Jennifer A Johnsrud Subscriber
Dec 17, 2011 10:25 PM
I have personally visited Fossil Creek, the waterfall is magic until the locals show up. I witnessed a young man tagging a fallen tree with a silver paint marker and many groups carried in cases of bottled water and left all their empty bottles, cardboard and plastic behind. A ranger was there for one of the days with trash bags asking people to pick up after themselves but it was a losing battle. It is a tragic and extremely angering scene for anyone who appreciates the outdoors.

If anyone actually visited and saw the abuse this special place is being subjected to you would change your mind about the fees. I personally welcome fees, limited numbers of users or anything else that would deter the unappreciative and ignorant Phoenicians from visiting Fossil Creek.
Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
Dec 17, 2011 10:51 PM
you could limit visitors without fees.
Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
Dec 17, 2011 10:52 PM
i've seen maybe 50 special places ruined due to apathy and lack of understanding for every 1 that is ruined due to overvisitation