Arizona's Fossil Creek gets restored -- and loved to death

by Jay Canode

Deep in Arizona's Mazatzal Mountains, there's a 16-mile-long undulating channel of emerald-green travertine. Clear 75-degree water bubbles from the ground and flows down it at a steady 45 cubic feet per second. It's home to a thriving native fish population, rare and endangered aquatic and terrestrial creatures, and towering canopies of cottonwood, ash and sycamore trees. Nearly 13 tons of travertine -- calcium carbonate in solution -- are deposited daily along its length, making it the fourth-largest such formation in North America. The place resembles a gigantic glass sculpture by Chihuly: magic in the desert.

This is Fossil Creek. For most of the 20th century, the stream barely existed: All but a trickle was diverted in 1908 to feed Arizona's first hydroelectric plants, which powered mining in nearby Jerome and the Bradshaw Mountains. In 2005, under pressure from a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, Arizona Public Service decommissioned the dam and restored the creek. The utility "gave it up for the better public good. That's never happened in Arizona or the Southwest. It's really a miracle," says Robin Silver, one of the group's founders.

But that miracle has come at a price. The restored creek is less than two hours away from Phoenix, Flagstaff and Prescott, and it's quickly become a mecca for weekend warriors seeking a respite from the Arizona heat. "It can approach a thousand people on a Saturday along four miles of waterway (that parallel the road). If you do the math, that's one person in the creek every 20 feet," says Aaron Rotert, one of the four Forest Service officers who patrol Fossil Creek. Fresh out of Northern Arizona University, Rotert tries to educate visitors and make sure current rules are followed: no campfires, camp only in designated area s, pack out all refuse, no offroad travel, no fishing during the summer. From behind Terminator-style sunglasses, he monitors traffic and picks up a never-ending stream of litter, most of it beer cans.

On a sweltering Saturday in September, the newly expanded parking lot at the Fossil Springs Wilderness trailhead overflows by 8 a.m. Several miles farther down, cars line both sides of the narrow road along the creek, choking off even one-way traffic by noon. By 3 p.m., people are parking on the desert itself, flattening young mesquite trees and barrel cactus, crushing rodent and reptile dens. Along the creek's easily accessible stretches, banks are eroded and trampled into a web of bare dirt trails that shed sediment during every rainstorm, degrading water quality and aquatic habitat. At the end of one of these trails, a dozen boys, part of a large Boy Scout gathering, take turns cannon-balling into the creek from a rope tied to a massive ash tree. Farther along at a popular grotto, alcohol- and adrenaline-fueled daredevils do back flips into a cerulean pool 30 feet below, with 50 spectators cheering and jeering each jump. Several swimmers snorkel just below the surface. Forgotten swimsuits, candy wrappers and potato chip bags litter the nearby grasses and shrubs.

"The numbers of people we see out here, it's not sustainable," Rotert says as he patrols the only road in and out of the area, writing parking tickets and explaining to visitors that the route needs to be kept clear for emergency vehicles. "Something has to be done."

A plan of action is in the works but will take some time to come to fruition. In 2009, Congress designated Fossil Creek a wild and scenic river, one of only two in Arizona. The designation requires the Forest Service to "protect and enhance" the river's free-flowing condition, water quality and its "outstandingly remarkable values" including its geology, aquatic habitat and historical significance. A comprehensive management plan for the area is mandated by early 2012.

Recently, officials held a series of public meetings to get input. Managers, stakeholders and concerned citizens mostly agree on the need to limit public access in some way, perhaps with a permit system, or even by making it a "day use only" area. Jennifer Burns, the Red Rock Ranger District recreation officer in charge of Fossil Creek, points to two other Arizona riparian areas as possible models. Aravaipa Creek Wilderness currently operates under a permit system that allows no more then 50 people per day and no more than 10 people per party. Permits for spring and fall weekends at Aravaipa usually sell out within hours. Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, outside of Tucson, charges a day use fee and can only be reached by foot or shuttle bus.

Limiting visitation rubs some the wrong way, says Lynn Humphrey, the recreation planner in charge of facilitating the Fossil Creek plan. "They're the people that usually don't attend the meetings, so we've sent in pollsters on big weekends to get additional public input." Jordan Wright, for one, is against keeping people out. Amid a swarm of giddy children, the 39-year-old Phoenix resident is getting ready to jump off an outcropping into a green pool three stories below. It's great to see people enjoying the creek, he says. "I don't think they should ever put limits on visitation. People just need to pick up their junk." He believes that better education -- and perhaps a few more patrolmen -- would solve the problems.

It's a complicated situation: The more people who experience and enjoy the natural world, the more likely they are to become future stewards of the land. But "the reality is that it's a small area and we're going to need to control the amount of human impact," concludes Silver. "The lesson we need to take from this is we need more success stories like Fossil Creek. We have a population that really desires this type of recreation and this experience with nature."

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