Puma Press

Access to popular Fossil Springs debated,

fossil creek
Photo courtesy Coconino National Forest
The cool, clear waters of Fossil Springs roar below the site of a hydroelectric plant decommissioned in 2005. The closure restored the spring's full flow, creating a natural oasis.

You might have guessed that all of Arizona’s outdoor gems had been identified by the year 2000, but in fact, one increasingly popular outdoor highlight has become a destination in only the last eight years.

Fossil Springs, located between Strawberry and Camp Verde, has quickly become a popular recreation spot, especially during the summer, when the spring’s cool, clear waters provide a string of pools surrounded by a green oasis.

“The first time I went there I was surprised,” says Dean Jones, communications director for the U.S. Forest Service group, developing a management plan for Fossil Springs . “I was just awestruck.”

Heavy weekend traffic at the springs has created congestion on the dirt access road and damaged the road and environment.
The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the site in the Coconino National Forest, has had to develop a master plan in recent years to manage the increasingly popular destination. Following two— at times impassioned— public meetings this past August and September in Camp Verde and Payson, the Forest Service has narrowed down three management scenarios that could dramatically affect visitors’ experience at the springs. The plans will soon be announced to the public .

Fossil Springs was used by Arizona Public Service to generate electricity through a small hydroelectric dam beginning in 1909. To harness the hydropower of Fossil Springs, which puts out an impressive flow of water, APS built a dam and flume to divert the water to a small power plant. At one time in the 1920 s, this relatively tiny plant provided 70 percent of Phoenix’s electricity, according to Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, Arizona, home to a collection of documents on the historic dam. During the time the dam was in operation, Jones says, people did not visit Fossil Springs in the numbers they do today.

By the early 2000 s, the output at the Fossil Springs dam was relatively miniscule and generated only a trickle of revenue. APS agreed to decommission the dam in 2005. With full flow restored, the spring and creek have been returning to their natural state, creating an amazing natural wetland in an otherwise arid landscape.

Growing awareness of the natural gem has led a mass of visitors, sometimes reaching over 1,000 per day on summer weekends, to descend on the mostly undeveloped, remote site. Jones says the growing popularity has developed largely through word of mouth. The increased visitation made the need for a management master plan more urgent. According to Jones, the visitation has led to road damage and congestion on the miles of washboard dirt roads leading to the spring and creek.

At the public comment meetings this summer, the Forest Service presented seven different concepts for managing the Fossil Springs and the associated creek in the future. They ranged from one concept, titled Fossil Springs: By Foot, Hoof, or Bike, that would stop motorized vehicles at two trailheads to the east and west of the creek, and require visitors to approach the creek and springs via miles of hiking, biking, or horseback riding. This approach would emphasi ze conservation of the wetlands.

The other side of the spectrum of options presented was Fossil Springs: Scenic Driving for Pleasure. This option would allow drivers to get closer to the springs by vehicle, and allow some off-highway vehicles and tours to drive near the springs via a permit system.

What angered many local people at the meeting, according to Jones and local newspaper reports, was that this was the only option that left Forest Road 708 open from the towns of Strawberry and Pine, and even in this option access is limited.

This is important to many residents and business owners of these towns because the closure of FR 708 into the Fossil Creek area means that visitors to Fossil Springs from Pine and Strawberry must endure an arduous 8-mile-round-trip hike to get to the springs from the parking lot. For residents who simply want to enjoy the springs, it’s an inconvenience, and for business owners it means lost revenue as hundreds of Fossil Creek visitors opt to take the Camp Verde route, which allows them to drive right up to the creek.

Jones would not give details yet of the three management options that will now be focused on after public comment, except to say that in one of the options FR 708 will remain open all the way from Strawberry and Pine. This seems to be a reversal considering the fact that only one of the seven management options allowed limited access on FR 708 from those communities. So, a more motorized, heavily visited attraction may be destined for the future.

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