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Human waste, unofficial trails are harming Oak Creek Canyon. This project is trying to fix it

Arizona officials are finishing up a project intended to rehabilitate a popular corridor in Coconino County suffering from overuse.

Northern Arizona’s Oak Creek Canyon is popular with the state’s residents. But that affection comes with a cost: human waste poisoning the water with E. coli and deteriorating trails that were never intended.

Now environmental groups are trying to rehabilitate the area. 

"On occasion the creek exceeds the state water quality standard for full-body contact, creating potentially unhealthy conditions for people who are recreating in the water," said Ron Tiller with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

A group of Arizona Conservation Corps members recently completed the second phase of a project that officials hope will rehabilitate many areas along the corridor that have been hit hard by visitors, improve water quality in the creek and protect habitat for the threatened narrow-headed garter snake, the  Arizona Daily Sunreported.

And then the issue with so-called social trails, basically wildcat trails tourists make down to the creek itself.  A collaboration of 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, the project seeks to close hundreds of these unofficial social trails that crisscross the area between the highway and the creek. 

Tiller said in April of 2020, he and Jake Fleischman with Natural Channel Design — which has also been brought on to assist with the effort — cataloged and mapped close to 340 social trails within Oak Creek Canyon. In one area, Tiller said, they cataloged 47 individual trails that visitors had cut to the creek within just a quarter-mile stretch. 

The trails and foot traffic increase erosion of sediment into the creek, and often contribute to outbreaks of E. coli in the creek as human waste left by visitors is swept into the water.

Some nearly 200 of those have so far been repaired during this phase of the project.

Last year, the Arizona Department of Transportation also sought to limit where visitors could park along 89A, installing new guardrails in several areas. The agency cataloged close to 600 parking pull-offs along the road, meaning that for about every two parking spots, visitors had cut a new trail to the creek.

In response, AZCC teams have installed low fencing and placed thick blankets of cut juniper limbs along the edge of pull offs, not only covering the unofficial trails from view but make the areas more difficult to navigate, and give new vegetation time to grow in.

On top of that, with the second phase of the project coming to an end, they are now looking at ways to fund the third phase of the project.

So far, funding has been coming from a variety of places including the state, the National Forest Foundation and REI Co-op.

Teller said depending on the funding they get, they hope to have crews back to work in spring or fall of 2022.

Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.