Sought out for its breathtaking views and variety of outdoor activities, north-central Arizona’s Oak Creek Canyon has undoubtedly become one of the state’s hot spots. With the number of visitors overflowing, lines of vehicles parked up and down Highway 89A have become a normal sight, not just in the summer, but also in the off-season.
At first thought this may just seem to be an annoyance, but there’s a lot more to the problem that residents and visitors need to be aware of. This overabundance of traffic is creating significant, ecological damage to the Oak Creek corridor.
The AZCC and numerous organizations and groups, including the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, the National Forest Foundation, and the Coconino National Forest’s Red Rock District, have come together on a project to mitigate the crowds’ impacts on Oak Creek Canyon. While closing hundreds of unofficial social trails that connect the highway and creek, the crew has worked to stabilize and improve other trails (40 of the 200 they’ve worked on) to make them safer and reduce erosion. These will be left open to the public.
In April of 2020, Ron Tiller, a Department of Environmental Quality scientist, and Jake Fleischman with Natural Channel Design, documented around 340 social trails within the area. Not only are these a threat to visitors themselves as they make their way down steep, uneven land scattered with patches of poison ivy, but it’s increasing the erosion of sediment into the creek. E. coli outbreaks have become more common as human waste left by visitors make its way into the water.
Rocks have been stacked under the state park’s fence to block off some of the places that visitors had previously accessed the creek. Last year, the Arizona Department of Transportation cataloged around 600 parking pull-offs and since installed new guardrails along 89A to limit this excess parking. Low fencing and thick blankets of cut juniper limbs have been placed along the edge of these pull off spots by AZCC. This helps not only to conceal unofficial trails, but also as more vegetation grows in, it makes these trails immensely harder for guests to maneuver.
Recently completing phase two, the project’s goals have been to rehabilitate areas along the corridor, improve the creek’s water quality, and protect this habitat for the threatened narrow-headed garter snake. Funding thus far has come from many sources including the state, REI Co-op, and the National Forest Foundation. The next focus is finding ways to fund phase three with hopes to get the crews back on site working in spring or fall of 2022.
Although none of this guarantees use of unofficial trails will cease to exist, it raises awareness of the problem and gives individuals the opportunity to do the right thing. Sasha Stortz, Arizona program manager for the National Forest Foundation, estimates that if the project is a success, they’ll yearly prevent about 30 tons of sediment from being eroded into the creek.
Preserving this beloved spot will not only guarantee more years for locals to have this beautiful spot near them, but also combats E. coli outbreaks, and saves the narrow-headed garter snakes natural habitat.
Small decisions you make everyday can help reduce your ecological impact, and conserve those places you love the most. Remember this next time you’re out in traffic looking for a spot along Highway 89A with plans to spend your day in beautiful Oak Creek Canyon.