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

  • A man jumps from a cliff into a pool in Fossil Creek as others look on.

    Abraham Karam
  • Abraham Karam
  • Dexter Allen, a Fossil Creek patrol ranger, cleans trash from a firepit after a big weekend.

    USDA Forest Service
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • ENDANGERED SPECIES STAFF SCIENTIST
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a staff scientist to advocate for the conservation of endangered species. General position overview: The position will involve working...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PROGRAM
    The Center for Biological Diversity - a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of imperiled plants, animals and wild places - seeks a dynamic...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Staff Attorney to join our team of attorneys, scientists, campaigners who are working to protect America's public lands...
  • SOUTHWEST CONSERVATION ADVOCATE
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Southwest Conservation Advocate to join our team of attorneys, scientists and campaigners who are working to protect America's...
  • OCEANS PROGRAM CAMPAIGNER
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks an experienced campaigner for its oceans program. The aim of the position is to campaign for the protection of...
  • CLIMATE LAW INSTITUTE ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute is looking to add an attorney to its team and will consider applicants at both staff attorney...
  • FULL-TIME CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a full-time Campaign Director in our Climate Law Institute to join our campaign for progressive, urgent government action to...
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIVE
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...