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"