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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Upper Verde River Recommended for Wild and Scenic Protection

The U.S. Forest Service has taken a significant step towards protecting the Upper Verde River. A 36-mile segment was deemed “suitable” for Wild and Scenic River designation, recognizing its exceptional scenic beauty, recreational opportunities, cultural significance, and vital fish and wildlife habitat.

Gary Beverly, a local advocate who has championed this cause since 2008, acknowledges that this finding isn’t mandatory for Wild and Scenic status, but emphasizes its importance. For Beverly, the urgency for protection stems from the Verde’s unique status as Arizona’s last free-flowing river. He leads a coalition of national and local conservation groups seeking protection for the Verde River, from its headwaters near Chino Valley to Clarkdale. The effort also encompasses Sycamore Creek, flowing through the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area, and a two-mile stretch of Granite Creek.

The Forest Service’s suitability assessment focused on the segment under its jurisdiction. The Verde met the criteria of being free-flowing, possessing acceptable water quality, and having other values that could be safeguarded by Wild and Scenic designation. This designation restricts development along the river and a surrounding corridor extending a quarter-mile on each bank.

However, the Forest Service excluded two short segments (totaling 2.2 miles) from the recommendation due to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposal to build fish barriers. These barriers aim to prevent non-native species from harming threatened and endangered native fish populations. If the barrier project is scrapped, these excluded segments could be reconsidered for Wild and Scenic inclusion.


A Longstanding Effort

The Sierra Club, a prominent supporter of the designation, highlights that the Upper Verde’s eligibility for Wild and Scenic protection was first recognized in 1982. A subsequent Forest Service report in 2010 reiterated this eligibility, forming the basis for the current suitability finding.

Adding the Verde to the National Wild and Scenic River System requires Congressional approval and the President’s signature. Importantly, the designation wouldn’t affect existing agricultural, ranching, mining, or utility infrastructure along the river. Private property within the protected corridor also remains exempt from federal control.

The Prescott National Forest has been managing the Upper Verde with Wild and Scenic principles since the 2010 eligibility finding, but a formal designation would provide a stronger foundation for protection.

If successful, the Forest Service would be required to develop a specific management plan to ensure the characteristics that qualified the river for Wild and Scenic status are maintained or enhanced.

The Verde River below Camp Verde, extending to the Mazatzal Wilderness, has enjoyed Wild and Scenic protection since 1984.

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