South Fork Cave Creek Project

South Fork Cave Creek Project


Friends of Cave Creek Canyon (FOCCC) and the US Forest Service (USFS) have been working for over five years to replace the South Fork picnic area, bathroom, and benches rendered inaccessible by the flood of 2014, and later removed. The creek became polluted by human waste after the bathroom was out of commission, so FOCCC installed porta-potties, a temporary solution.  South Fork is the most heavily visited part of the Chiricahua Mountains, attracting thousands of birders as well as hikers and the general public.

Overview of the South Fork Project:

  1. What are the needs? To eliminate pollution and concentrate a fair amount of visitation in a small footprint, replace the picnic area, bathroom, and benches.  To meet the needs of many people with limited mobility, add a small handicapped trail.  To reduce impact on the upper canyon, relocate the picnic area closer to Forest Road (FR) 42.
  2. How is a plan developed?  USFS uses the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.  This includes scoping documents, meetings and comments; preparation of a Draft Environmental Assessment (DEA) by USFS staff; release of the DEA, followed by a public comment period; Decision and release of final Environmental Assessment (EA).
  3. Who pays for this? USFS conducts the process and provides staff time, but does not have the funds to make physical improvements to South Fork.  Partners, especially FOCCC, will provide funding through grants and donations.

Read more:

  1. Timeline of events since March 2020
  2. History of South Fork Development
  3. 2015-2020 Identifying needs to repair Odile damage
  4. The NEPA Process to address needs
  5. FOCCC and Community Input on Solutions

Timeline of events beginning March 2020

(this section will be updated as progress is made, with most recent events at the top of the list)

  • September 10, 2020 – Letter from community member Peter Waser posted – see Input on Solutions below for link to document.
  • September 4, 2020 – The Board of FOCCC has prepared a summary and analysis of the Draft Environmental Assessment that will be submitted to the USFS through the Comments process.  The summary and analysis are published in a special edition of the FOCCC Newsletter.
  • August 26, 2020 – The Draft Environmental Assessment and Letter requesting Comments has been posted on the Coronado National Forest website:  The Draft EA is on the Analysis tab and the Comment Letter is on the Supporting tab. To submit a comment electronically, go to the South Fork Project Page on the Coronado National Forest website, and click on Comment/Object on Project on the right hand side or click here.  A form will open that you can edit to submit your comments.  The comment period is open until September 26, 2020.  See Input on Solutions below for direct links to documents.
  • June 2020 – Since the March community meeting, the USFS has said that they expect the Draft Environmental Assessment to be published during summer 2020.
  • May 2020 – An email exchange between Peter Waser, Doug Ruppel and Reed Peters highlighted the state of the South Fork Plan at that time.  The messages are posted (with permission) in the section on Input on Solutions.
  • March 9, 2020 – A public meeting, hosted by FOCCC and the USFS, was held in Rodeo, NM, to bring the community up to date on the project’s status and provide a forum for comment.  The meeting was opened by FOCCC President Reed Peters, who gave a brief history of the development of the South Fork Project.  USFS District Ranger Doug Ruppel moderated the remainder of the meeting, which included an explanation of the needs, the NEPA process for addressing the needs, and comments/questions from the community regarding education, Zoological/Botanical Area designation, location of infrastructure, ways to reduce human impact in South Fork, use of the Visitor Information Center (VIC), native and invasive plants, and benches and accessible trail, and an alternative Vision and Suggestions.  Ruppel explained the next steps in the NEPA process, which will include a comment period after the DEA is published.  A detailed description of the meeting is below in the section on Input on Solutions.
  • March 9, 2020 – A group of community members developed a Vision and Suggestions for South Fork that was presented as an alternative to the FOCCC plans that were developed in 2019-2020 (see A vision and suggestions for the use of South Fork and Development and progression of FOCCC plans in the section on Input on Solutions.

History of South Fork development

  1. Pre-1986: South Fork had a campground and bathroom for decades, at least back to the 1960’s.  Sometime in the last 40 or 50 years it became a “fee area,” a USFS designation that requires users to pay a fee, usually because there is a bathroom or campsites, etc.  Campers as well as hikers and day visitors all paid various fees.  Anyone who parked near the trailhead, in the “fee area” was subject to the fee.
  2. 1986 plan: Due partly to the degradation of the campground area by indiscriminate parking, but also to accommodate more visitors, the 1986 plan recommended removal of the campground and the installation of a picnic area, with the area remaining a “fee area.”  In addition, to draw the public’s attention to the unique features of the canyon, South Fork was designated a Zoological/Botanical Area, which also permitted special management. This designation was not intended to discourage or reduce visitation.
  3. Visitation in South Fork: The South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon is the most popular destination for visitors to the Chiricahua Mountains, drawing birders, hikers, and the general public. The dramatic cliffs and vistas, level terrain, and beautiful plants, trees, and creek combine to form an unforgettable experience, drawing people from all over the country to hike, picnic, or bird.  South Fork is one of the top birding destinations in the United States. In the late 1990’s, at least 18,000 birders a year were visiting Portal, mainly to go to the Spofford’s bird sanctuary on Sierra Linda Road, as well as South Fork to see rare Mexican species such as the Elegant Trogon, and Rustler Park to see the Mexican Chickadee.  To accommodate the many visitors, FOCCC and the USFS installed  several benches near the parking area in South Fork, and a half dozen benches in a semicircle for small gatherings, just above the picnic area.
  4. 2014 Hurricane Odile flooding: The September flood destroyed the quarter mile of the South Fork Road closest to the trailhead.  The USFS had just had the road repaired the month before, after another flood event.  After the Hurricane Odile flooding, they decided that the road was no longer viable without building unsightly protective barriers.  Since there was no trail parallel to the road, the picnic area and bathroom became inaccessible to anyone unwilling to navigate the stony creek bottom that the road had become.

2015-2020 Identifying needs to repair Hurricane Odile damage

  1. FOCCC support:  FOCCC and community members met with the USFS soon after the flood to discuss rebuilding the picnic area in an area less likely to flood. The berm area was most people’s choice, as it was closest to the trailhead, but a site a quarter mile from FR 42 was also discussed and viewed.  Some community members favored rewilding the canyon, not putting the picnic area or bathroom back.   Decisions were delayed by management changes at the USFS.  The bathroom and picnic tables and benches were later removed, as they could not be maintained, and pollution soon became a problem, with string algae flourishing in Cave Creek all the way down to Portal.  Even without any amenities, thousands of visitors still came to South Fork.  Some began to use the creek as a toilet.
  2. Funding needs revealed in 2018: Until late in 2018, FOCCC understood that the USFS had budget monies for replacing the South Fork picnic area and bathroom, and would do the project soon.  Late that year, FOCCC was told there was no money for this project in the USFS budget, and if FOCCC wanted a new picnic area and bathroom, they would need to fund it.  That started activity for selecting a site and facilities, and also for building a trail extension from the berm to connect to the old South Fork Trailhead.  The trail was finished with the help of the USFS and volunteers in July of 2019.  A concept plan for the berm area was produced, but foundered on the limited space above the floodplain for a bathroom.  It was proposed to move the bathroom down to the old site the USFS had proposed in 2015, a quarter mile from FR 42.  Gradually it became apparent that there should only be one site, and logically it was the lower site with room for the bathroom.  This revised plan also addressed the issue of reducing human impact on the upper canyon, by putting this small development much closer to the paved road, FR 42.  A summary of the FOCCC’s proposed plans from fall 2019 through March 2020 is available in the Input on Solutions section below.

The NEPA Process to address needs

  • The USFS is using the NEPA process to address needs of the South Fork Day Use Area.
  • “With some limited exceptions, all Federal agencies in the executive branch have to comply with NEPA before they make final decisions about federal actions that could have environmental effects. Thus, NEPA applies to a very wide range of federal actions that include, but are not limited to, federal construction projects, plans to manage and develop federally owned lands…..NEPA established this country’s national environmental policies. To implement these policies, NEPA requires agencies to undertake an assessment of the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. Two major purposes of the environmental review process are better informed decisions and citizen involvement, both of which should lead to implementation of NEPA’s policies.”  (from “A Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA”).
  • When environmental effects are likely to be significant, the NEPA process includes a number of steps to reach a decision regarding federal projects.  A graphic of the steps can be downloaded here or from the Forest Service website.
  • For the South Fork Day Use Area project, the steps are documented on the Coronado National Forest website .

Status of the NEPA steps for the South Fork Day Use Area project:

  • Notice of intent to prepare an Environmental Assessment (Letter sent to partners (Oct 11, 2019) and Public Notice published in the Douglas Daily Dispatch Oct 23, 2019, documents available on the Coronado National Forest website.) 
  • Public scoping and public involvement (Letter to partners and Public Notice as above, plus Community Meeting March 9, 2020 – summary available in the Input on Solutions section below).
  • Preparation of a Draft Environmental Assessment (DEA) (Published 26 August 2020; see Input on Solutions for link to document).
  • Letter requesting public review and comments (Published 26 August 2020; see Input on Solutions for link to letter).
  • Preparation of the final Environmental Assessment (forthcoming)
  • Public availability of the final Environmental Assessment (forthcoming)
  • Record of Decision (forthcoming)

USFS, FOCCC and Community Input on Solutions

This section provides links to downloadable PDFs of plans, proposals, comments, and letters regarding solutions to the needs of South Fork.  Additional resources will be listed in the Timeline section when they are added to this section. To submit content for this section, contact the webmaster –

  • Spring 2019 – March 2020 – Development and progression of FOCCC plans to initiate grant support for funding – click here
  • March 9, 2020 – A vision and suggestions for the use of South Fork – Eskild Petersen’s proposal  – click here
  • March 9, 2020 – Community meeting (see summary under Timeline of Events) – click here
  • May 28-29, 2020 – Messages between Peter Waser -Doug Ruppel – Reed Peters – click here
  • August 26, 2020 – Draft Environmental Assessment is on the Forest Service website.
  • August 26, 2020 – Letter requesting comments is available on the Forest Service website. The comment period is open until 9/26/20.  Comments about the Draft Environmental Assessment can be submitted electronically – click here.
  • September 4, 2020 – FOCCC Board published a special edition of the Newsletter with a summary and analysis of the Draft Environmental Assessment – click here to read the newsletter.
  • September 10, 2020 – Peter Waser submitted comments to the USFS, which are also posted here.

To submit comments about this Project Page or content for the Solutions section, contact the webmaster, Bonnie Bowen, at