December 2017 | Volume 23, Number 2



Abstract: Fossil Creek was designated as a Wild and Scenic River in 2009. Its striking turquoise-blue waters support outstandingly remarkable values related to recreation, geology, biological resources, and Apache and Yavapai traditional and contemporary cultural values. However, until recently Fossil Creek was known not for its unique and significant river values but rather for its importance as a hydroelectric resource. Hydroelectric facilities constructed in the early 20th century diverted the majority of Fossil Creek’s flows, leaving little water in the creek to support nonconsumptive values. In 2005 a broad group of stakeholders negotiated the removal of these hydroelectric facilities and the “re-watering” of Fossil Creek. This work has restored robust ecological and geologic processes, honored important historic and cultural values associated with this resource, and led to a high level of demand for recreation access. The story of Fossil Creek has broad implications for the protection of rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act at its 50th year and beyond.

Fossil Creek – one of only two federally designated wild and scenic rivers (WSRs) in Arizona – originates in Fossil Springs Wilderness in the southern part of the Coconino National Forest (CNF). It ultimately flows through Mazatzal Wilderness prior to its confluence with the Verde WSR. Fossil Creek is unique both for its perennial flow in an arid region and for its travertine system. Much of this perennial flow is from springs that have a combined discharge of 43 cubic feet per second (cfs) (Jones and Phillips 2001). These springs are supersaturated with calcium carbonate, which precipitates on logs and rocks, forming unique fossil-like travertine dams that give rise to Fossil Creek’s name. The calcium carbonate also creates stunning turquoise-blue waters, which are oxygenated by the system of cascading travertine pools, resulting in high-quality habitat for native fish (Marks et al. 2010).

Intermittent use of the Fossil Creek corridor likely began several millennia ago with the Yavapai people as early as the 13th century and the Apache people in the 16th century (Pilles 1981; Gilpin et al. 2003; USDA 2016b). This use of the corridor was likely unchanged until the US Cavalry embarked on a campaign to remove the Yavapai and Apache peoples to reservations in the 1860s and 1870s. Human use of the corridor again changed in 1908 with the construction of the 25-foot (7.6 m) Fossil Springs Dam and flume to supply water to the Childs and Irving hydroelectric plants (USDA 2016b). The Childs-Irving Power System reduced flows in Fossil Creek by upwards of 90% to 2–3 cfs (Megdal et al. 2006) (Figure 1), helped to power mining operations in north-central Arizona, and supported the rapid expansion of Phoenix through the mid-1900s. In the 1990s the plant operator, Arizona Public Service (APS), applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Com- mission (FERC) to renew its license to generate power through diversion of Fossil Creek. Public interest and input in the relicensing process instead led to decommissioning the dam, flume, and power plants in 2005, allowing for the return of historical flows to the creek – which we refer to as “re-watering” here – along with restoration of a variety of its natural and cultural values (Figures 2 and 3). In 2009, Congress designated 16.8 miles (27 km) of Fossil Creek as a WSR. Outstandingly remarkable values (ORVs) for Fossil Creek include recreation, geology, biological resources, and Apache and Yavapai traditional and contemporary cultural values (USDA 2016b).

Figures 2 and 3 – Fossil Creek and its turquoise-blue waters after being re-watered. Photo credit: Coconino National Forest

Considering the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 2018, the story of re-watering and restoring Fossil Creek is relevant in several respects to the next 50 years of river protection. First, restoration of highly modified rivers can enhance and even create ORVs, as well as eligibility for WSR designation. Second, collaborative efforts and leadership by broad coalitions can produce significant conservation achievements. Finally, special places such as Fossil Creek have the potential to increase access to and public support for the National Wild ties in addition to more traditional public lands visitors. Balancing the protection of ecological and cultural values with the desire to maximize public use and enjoyment of WSRs, however, requires thoughtful management approaches.

Restoration and Creation of Nonconsumptive River Values in Fossil Creek

Relatively few dam decommissioning efforts in the United States have been studied and documented, and existing studies emphasize physical responses (e.g., sediment and flow) to dam removal as opposed to biological and water-quality responses (Bellmore et al. 2016). The handful of studies that have examined biological responses have found that biotic  recovery  can be rapid when the physical and chemical condition of the stream is relatively unaltered (Gore et al. 1990; Niemi et al. 1990).

Figure 1 – Fossil Creek after being de-watered for hydroelectric power generation. Photo credit: Coconino National Forest.

The restoration of Fossil Creek supports previous findings that physical processes  and  biological values can rebound following dam removal, particularly where complementary restoration actions are taken. Fossil Creek’s travertine system demonstrated measurable recovery within months of restoration of full flows (Fuller et al. 2011). Macro-invertebrate populations and fungi differed substantially above and below the dam prior to restoration, but quickly equilibrated following the dam removal (Muehlbauer et al. 2009). The restoration of Fossil Creek was also characterized by the recovery of native fish populations, although restoring this natural fishery required significant effort, including installation and maintenance of fish barriers to prevent species invasions from downstream, and the removal of exotic fish (Marks 2007). This is notable because while dam removals alone have allowed for a rapid return of migratory fish to previously inaccessible upstream reaches, responses to dam removal by less mobile fish, animals, and plants that receive no further human assistance have been mixed (O’Connor et al. 2015). The additional efforts to restore native fish on Fossil Creek resulted in initial population increases of 17-fold, 52-fold,  70-fold, and 150-fold   in Sonora sucker, desert sucker, roundtail chub, and speckled dace, respectively (Marks et al. 2010), and as of 2016 Fossil Creek was home to the largest number of native fish species protected from nonnative fish impacts in Arizona (USDA 2016b). Intensive study of the Fossil Creek system by an interdisciplinary team of scientists prior to and upon removal of the dam and flume have enabled this uncommonly robust set of observations that advance the general understanding of biophysical responses to river restoration.

In addition to the recovery of biophysical values, the re-watering and restoration of Fossil Creek demonstrates that river restoration actions can result in the return and creation of cultural and social values. This is indicated in part by the traditional and contemporary values that the Yavapai and Apache place on Fossil Creek, which were enhanced with the re-watering of Fossil Creek (USDA 2016b). One example of these enhanced values relates to the Apache philosophy of water, which has life and is meant to be free. Dewatering Fossil Creek when it was originally dammed and diverted resulted in great misgiving by the Apache, and the return of Fossil Creek’s water to its natural, free- flowing state was cause to rejoice (V. Randall, personal communication, March 10, 2017). In contrast to Fossil Creek’s other ORVs, which are rooted in natural processes and cultural uses and values of the river corridor, modern forms of recreation were not part of Fossil Creek’s historical fabric in an outstandingly remarkable way but rather emerged when flows were restored. It could therefore be argued that the recreation ORV was created with the restoration of Fossil Creek.

Collaborative Efforts and Significant Conservation Achievements

The rapid recovery of Fossil Creek’s natural system and sociocultural values resulting from its re-watering and restoration was enabled by a slower moving social process. It took more than a decade of collaboration for Fossil Creek’s waters to flow freely again. In many ways, the dam decommissioning and subsequent restoration efforts exemplify the key elements of adaptation for natural resource management through strong leadership, extensive public participation, and repeat engagement by a core set of stakeholders (see, e.g., Folke et al. 2005; Lebel et al. 2006; Pahl-Wostl 2009; Mott Lacroix and Megdal 2016). Specifically, these efforts were possible due to leadership from many sources, including APS given its decision to change course from its initial relicensing request to instead support re-watering Fossil Creek, a diverse coalition of local and national environmental organizations, the Yavapai-Apache Nation, and natural resource management agencies involved in the Fossil Creek system. Elements of the wide-ranging coalition that worked together to re-water and restore the creek continue to be engaged in planning processes. For example, the Yavapai-Apache Nation and several of the environmental organizations involved in restoration were instrumental in advocating for Fossil Creek’s designation as a WSR.

The public also played an important role in the restoration of Fossil Creek. When FERC issued a draft environmental assessment in 1997 recommending a new license be issued, public input and participation in the succeeding years prompted APS to change its request to FERC; to surrender its license; decommission the dam, flume, and hydroelectric plants; and re-water Fossil Creek. Public interest and participation continued beyond the decommissioning effort, contributing to other restoration actions and Fossil Creek’s designation as a WSR in 2009. This engagement persists 25 years later with the ongoing development of Fossil Creek Comprehensive River Management Plan (CRMP) by the Forest Service.

Increasing Support through Access and recreation 

Recreation use grew profoundly after Fossil Creek was re-watered and continued to grow following its WSR designation in 2009. Specifically, the CNF estimates that use of Fossil Creek during the primary-use season (May–October) increased from approximately 20,000 visitors in 2006 to 80,000 in 2009 and 2010, and peaked at nearly 95,000 in 2011. A survey from 2013 indicated that 79% of visitors were from the Phoenix metro area, located more than two hours away by car (USDA 2013).

By estimating both the visitation at Fossil Creek and the number of people turned away due to capacity controls implemented beginning in 2011, total demand to visit Fossil Creek peaked at nearly 130,000 people during the primary-use season in 2015. Visitation levels were reduced in 2016 using a permit system to levels approximately equal to 2007, when 45,000 to 50,000 people visited during the primary-use season. Total demand to visit Fossil Creek in 2016 is unknown because data do not exist on how many would-be visitors wanted to obtain a permit but were unable to do so (USDA 2013; USDA 2016a).

The visitor use patterns at Fossil Creek since it was re-watered are notable not only for the significant growth in public demand for visitation, but also for the demographics of visitors. Namely, the CNF estimates that the proportion of Hispanic visitors to Fossil Creek grew from 19% in 2009 to 49% in 2013, compared to a national estimate that 5.5% of visitors to National Forest System lands between 2010 and 2015 self- identified as Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino (USDA 2013; USDA 2015).

Nearly 8% of visitors to the CNF in 2010 self-identified as Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino (USDA 2010). Initial analysis of data from the first year of the permit system indicates that the proportion of Hispanic visitors to Fossil Creek decreased to approximately 27% in 2016, a reduction of nearly half (F. Valenzuela, personal communication, January 18, 2017). No studies have been conducted to explore why visitation to Fossil Creek by His- panic visitors is so high compared to national visitation patterns and those observed for the CNF, and whether the permit system has caused the substantial decrease in proportion of Hispanic visitors to Fossil Creek. However, these demographic trends and questions for future researchers are noteworthy given published literature that federal public lands tend to serve primarily white visitors (see, e.g., Johnson et al. 2007; Weber and Sultana 2013) and that many urban communities are underserved in terms of access to parks and green space (see, e.g., Byrne et al. 2009; Johnson-Gaither 2011).

The CNF has not finalized the Fossil Creek CRMP and therefore no substantial facilities development has yet occurred in the river corridor. As such, outside of public contacts, signage, prohibitions on camping and campfires, informal designation of parking areas, and minor upland restoration activities, recreation use at Fossil Creek has been largely unconstrained. Due to concerns on the CNF that unconstrained recreation at increasing use levels was resulting in unacceptable crowding and impacts to the river’s water quality and ORVs, the CNF implemented capacity controls as part of their interim protection measures beginning in 2011. These interim measures culminated in the implementation of a reservation permit system in 2016. It is possible that Fossil Creek could support higher levels of visitor use without corresponding impacts to its ORVs with appropriate facilities development. Specifically, recreation ecology studies indicate that much of natural resource impacts from recreation occur at low use levels, and impacts from visitor use decrease proportion- ally as use grows to moderate and high levels. Based on these studies, by strategically locating visitor use at hardened sites through facilities development (e.g., fencing, trails, etc.), impacts from recreation can be substantially reduced as compared to scenarios where visitor use is unconstrained (Leung and Marion 1999; Marion et al. 2016). In developing the Fossil Creek CRMP, the CNF has proposed an adaptive approach to managing capacity concurrent with strategically locating and developing facilities to more actively manage recreation use, setting aside a specific site of significance to the Yavapai-Apache Nation for tribal uses, exempting tribal traditional and cultural uses and activities from the permit system, and prohibiting swimming at sites with noteworthy cultural and natural values. Taken together, these approaches may result in increased visitor use capacity in the future compared to 2016 while ensuring for the protection of natural and cultural values (USDA 2016c).

Striving to manage WSRs to protect natural  and  cultural values and provide high levels of access to outstandingly remarkable recreation opportunities by diverse communities can be justified on pragmatic and moral grounds. In pragmatic terms, a variety of studies have demonstrated a correlation between outdoor recreation use and support for the resource; pro-environmental behaviors; and, depending on the recreation activity, support for conservation activities (see, e.g., Jackson 1986; Larson et al. 2011; Cooper et al. 2015). One study also indicates that in addition to WSR visitors accruing social benefits from their recreation experiences, proximity to WSRs is correlated with community members perceiving that they derive ecological, social, and economic benefits from WSR designations (Smith and Moore 2011). It therefore follows that access to high-quality recreation opportunities associated with WSRs by nontraditional public lands visitors and underserved communities in addition to traditional national forest visitors could lead to broader public support for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Increased support for WSRs by underserved communities may also contribute to more diversity and strength in collaboratives working on behalf of river restoration and future WSR designations. A growing body of literature indicates that inequities in access to parks and open space in urban areas may be widespread (Byrne et al. 2009; Johnson-Gaither 2011). Identifying opportunities to restore and protect rivers in or close to urban communities, including providing river-based recreation opportunities, could contribute to addressing some of these inequities.

The Next 50 Years of River Protection

Fossil Creek is a rare case of WSR designation following a major restoration action. It demonstrates that rivers with impaired flows and ORVs can be restored and subsequently merit inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Over the past quarter century the robust public interest and involvement together with strong leadership by a wide-ranging coalition of corporate, tribal, environ- mental nonprofit, and government stakeholders have resulted in decommissioning the dam, several associated restoration actions, Fossil Creek’s WSR designation, and the present-day effort to finalize the Fossil Creek CRMP to ensure protection of the river’s values in perpetuity.

At its core, the story of Fossil Creek is one of a shift in public values from commodity-driven river management – in this case, hydropower – to prioritizing less tangible biophysical and sociocultural values. Replicating this success story in the context of other dammed, diverted, or channelized rivers where the public places increasing value on nonconsumptive uses will by no means be easy. Namely, even with the increasing value that the public places on nonconsumptive uses, successful river restoration and protection efforts often require substantial time and effort to understand the system ecology, ensure broad and persistent collaborative relation- ships, and promote robust public participation. Although river restoration efforts are complex and time intensive, opportunities for such actions are increasing where safety, sociocultural, and environmental factors are recognized about weighing the benefits of dams, or as dams are deemed no longer useful in achieving their intended purposes (American Rivers 2016). It stands to reason that rivers with dams or other developments that are unsafe, no longer useful, or inefficiently providing tangible commodity-based services are ripe for public discourse about their relative value in a free-flowing state, particularly where potential exists for the restoration, enhancement, or creation of ORVs.

In addition to the unusual fact that Fossil Creek was once dammed and is now a WSR, the growth in recreation demand by diverse and urban visitors following Fossil Creek’s restoration and designation is particularly worthy of consideration. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act requires that managers protect the free flow, water quality, and ORVs of designated rivers. Where recreation is an ORV, managers should strive to meet public demand for access to WSRs by informing planning and facilities development with biophysical sciences, cultural resource values, and recreation ecology. With this approach, capacity constraints could be based on addressing recreation goal interference and social value conflicts (as summarized in Watson 2001) as opposed to impacts to natural and cultural resources from unconstrained recreation activities. Considering the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and looking ahead into the act’s next 50 years, such an emphasis on recreation access by diverse and underserved communities in the con- text of river restoration and protection efforts could result in immense payoff for all who value WSRs. A focus on balancing recreation demands along- side free flow, water quality, and other ORVs will ensure the restoration, enhancement, or even creation of biophysical and sociocultural values; accrual of ecological, social, and economic benefits by visitors and nearby communities; improvement to localized, historic environmental inequities related to access to parks, open space, and high-quality recreation opportunities; opportunities to increase broadened collaboratives working on river restoration and designation; and public support for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System along with conservation and public lands more broadly into the next 50 years.

BJORN FREDRICKSON is the wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, and cave program manager with the US Forest Service Southwestern Region; email

KELLY MOTT LACROIX is a hydrologist and presidential management fellow with the National Forest System of the US Forest Service. Prior to joining the USFS, her work focused on ecohydrology and water management at the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center and the Arizona Department of Water Resources.


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