Protecting Fossil Creek a challenge for Yavapai Apache

CAMP VERDE -- The Yavapai-Camp Verde Apache think its great that Fossil Creek is once again flowing freely, but they want to make sure that this sacred area is protected.

Fossil Creek, located northwest of Payson, is a lush stream fed by mountain waters that attracts nature lovers.

In June, Arizona Public Service stopped diverting the water from Fossil Creek for the use of two hydroelectric plants. The two energy plants had been used to power the mines of Central Arizona in the early 1900s and were later used for electricity for Phoenix.

The Yavapai-Apache, American Rivers, Sierra Club, the forest service, Arizona Game and Fish, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and other government agencies worked together on the decommissioning.

Yavapai-Apache officials call the decommissioning "a big success."

The decommissioning has been hailed as a beautiful victory for the environment by the Arizona Republic, Arizona Highways and other publications, but Yavapai-Camp Verde officials remain concerned about what will happen when APS gives up the caretaking of Fossil Springs as the U.S. Forest Service is scheduled to take over in 2009.

Forest Service officials, however, say they don't have money to take care of Fossil Springs.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, has committed to introducing a bill that would include Fossil Creek in the national system of Wild and Scenic Rivers. This would automatically bring more caretaking funds to Fossil Springs.

Chris Coder, an archeologist with the Yavapai-Apache, said the tribe was happy to be involved every step of the way and at the end of June held a celebration to show its happiness that the creek again gets to flow freely.

Fossil Creek also holds historical meaning for the Yavapai-Camp Verde. About 1875, the Yavapai-Apache were forced off their reservation and many Yavapai-Apache fled to the Fossil Creek area. When the flume was built in 1906, many Yavapai-Apache worked either for the power company or the mine.

"They were driven out of the area, but when they returned they had federal jobs," Coder said. "Fossil Creek was taken away and altered. Now, it's back to the way it was."

Vincent Randall was serving as chairman of the Yavapai-Apache in 1999 when the decommissioning began.

Former Chairman Randall said APS has done a good job of keeping the trails and roads up, but there is a question of whether the forest service can keep up the stewardship.

"The decommissioning put the creek the way it was intended to be: free flowing," he said.

Randall said Fossil Creek is sacred to the Yavapai Apache as they have held ceremonies there and continue to do so.

"Many of the events of our history have been there," he said.

Randall said an "ecological community spirit" among several groups helped the decommissioning become a reality.

"My greatest fear is that people will come and not respect it. The great almighty created it and there should be good stewardship," he said.

Coder said the forest service is obligated to take care of the land, but if they can't he's hoping that

the environmental partners and Congress can get the Wild and Scenic River designation that will bring funding to protect it.

"My biggest issue is that we need to keep the water clean," Coder said. "The biggest issue to the tribe is that the water continues to flow."

Randall remains concerned that the forest service has told the tribe that there is no funding to take care of Fossil Creek.

"But it's their responsibility," he said. "If they're not going to take care of it then give it to us. Then, if it's trashed, we'll put up an iron curtain."

Randall said if the forest service gives the land to the tribe in trust status that it would allow them to protect Fossil Creek.

"My fear is that it could be trampled to death if there is no oversight," he said.

Randall noted that there is no camping at Fossil Creek and he feels that will protect it better.

"That makes it easier to maintain," he said.

Coder notes that the creek borders the Fossil Creek Wilderness Area and thus should be protected.

There are other aspects to this as Arizona Game and Fish wants to protect the native fish by keeping the non-native fish out. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to protect a frog that moved into the dam.

Coder said Fossil Creek has been one of Arizona's best kept secrets, but the recent publicity has brought more attention and more visitors to Fossil Creek.

"In the past three months, there has been a lot more traffic precipitated by the event," he said.

Coder said Fossil Creek is an unusual canyon with flowing water.

"We just ask that people respect it," he said.

(Stan Bindell, former Observer editor, is journalism and radio teacher at Hopi High School.)

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