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

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"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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