Imagine a creek with constant, crystal-clear, aquamarine water. In its deep pools swim only native fish, and on its banks huge trees provide shade and rich habitat for diverse wildlife. Here and there, rock formations bear fossil-like imprints of leaves and sticks. You may not expect a place like this to exist in the center of Arizona, yet it does. This place is Fossil Creek.
Its natural beauty and diversity, cultural heritage, and outstanding recreation opportunities have earned the creek designation as a wild and scenic river—a distinction shared by only one quarter of one percent of America’s rivers. The story of Fossil Creek is one of rapid change, increasing pressure, and collaborative effort set in a unique and cherished landscape, and the next chapter is one of opportunity.
Fossil Creek begins as do many Arizona waterways, as a normally dry streambed. This changes when a series of springs emit 20,000 gallons of water per minute, transforming the dry streambed to a robustly flowing creek. The water has percolated through overlying bedrock, leaving it so high in calcium carbonate that when it mixes with air, a substance similar to limestone called travertine is created. Travertine deposits so quickly that it encases anything in the stream channel—leaves, rocks, sticks, even trash. When these objects decompose they leave the imprints that give Fossil Creek its name. The travertine also forms large dams that span the creek, creating valuable habitat for fish and other aquatic species.
Water in dry places supports all manner of life, and the green ribbon of Fossil Creek’s riparian area is a prime example. Over 500 plant and 200 wildlife species have been documented in Fossil Creek, with the potential for many more. Many of these species are of special interest to scientists and managers because of their rarity or their value as indicators for ecosystem health. Of particular note is the creek’s fish, which are composed of purely native species. This is the result of an intensive and collaborative fish restoration effort in the 2000s.
The value of reliable water to human life, culture, and economy is clear in Fossil Creek. Human use of the area dates back 10,000 years, and several phases of settlement contribute to a rich cultural landscape. Many prehistoric sites can be found in Fossil Creek that date to the early agricultural period, and the Apache and Yavapai peoples maintain deep cultural connections to the creek to this day. When Euro-American settlers arrived in the area the economic potential of the creek was quickly realized. In the early 1900s a hydropower project was built to provide electricity to regional towns and mining ventures.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the view of Fossil Creek as a power generator changed. Though renewal of the federal license for the project was initially pursued, a collaborative effort changed the conversation into one focused on the potential for restoring water to the creek. In 2005 this vision came true. In the following years most of the hydropower infrastructure was removed in what has been called one of the largest river restoration projects in the Southwest. In recognition of its restored flow and remarkable values, Congress designated Fossil Creek a wild and scenic river in 2009.
The renewed creek was quickly discovered, and more and more people began to visit. Problems with trash, human waste, denuded stream banks, traffic congestion, and confrontations increased. The Forest Service scrambled to adapt its management of the area to keep pace with increasing demand, and to protect the values that make the area special, including visitors’ experience. Parking was improved, and traffic flow was managed. But still the problems worsened. Finally, in 2016, the Forest Service implemented a permit system as a way to manage visitor numbers, provide education, and protect the creek. This system has been widely viewed as a success.
Fortunately, comprehensive planning is mandated to ensure wild and scenic rivers are protected. This effort for Fossil Creek has been ongoing for years, and we are now close to completing a final plan. Information about this plan can be found at http://tinyurl.com/FossilCreekCRMP. The plan will ensure Fossil Creek is protected in its own right and for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. However, the Forest Service is just one entity who cares deeply about this special place, and its resources are ever more limited. Successfully managing Fossil Creek under the comprehensive plan will require creative thinking and group effort. Implementing the plan will present opportunities to work with the Forest Service and others to steward one of Arizona’s gems.
Serving Sedona, written this week for Friends of the Forest by Marcos Roybal, US Forest Service Fossil Creek Project Coordinator, appears Wednesday in the Sedona Red Rock News.