Within a year or two, one stretch of the Agua Fria River near Cordes Junction will look dramatically different.
That's the prediction from Agua Fria National Monument biologist Paul Sitzmann and Ranger Nancy Stallard, who both work for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The BLM is erecting a fence between a road and the river as a last-ditch effort to halt a barrage of illegal off-road vehicles.
Sitzmann said this stretch of the river is experiencing the worst human damage of any part of the monument.
"This is the greatest impact by vehicles by far," he said.
"The vehicle use in the river is just extreme," Stallard agreed. The illegal off-road use has been going on since the monument was created in 1999, but it's much worse in recent years, Stallard and Sitzmann said.
Stallard has seen it all, including a man changing his car oil in the river.
"Basically he was unrepentant," Stallard related. When she confronted him, he refused to stop.
"I was flabbergasted," she said. "He actually told me he was friends with the sheriff."
Where trees and grasses should be growing, there are tire tracks and bare sand, Sitzmann said.
The compacted soil prevents seeds from establishing plants and prevents water absorption, leading to unnatural erosion, Sitzmann explained. Fish, tadpoles and smaller river life are smashed under tires.
Sitzmann has heard the argument that floods do more damage than vehicles, and he says it simply is not true.
The landscape and its inhabitants have adapted to floods over thousands of years, he said. Plants send roots deep into the sandy soil. Fish hang onto algae during floods and use fins that have evolved to the task of holding them in place. Seeds and
nutrients float down the floodwaters to establish new territories.
Danger to humans is another powerful reason to stop the vehicles from driving up and down the river, Sitzmann said. Stallard said she has received complaints about children almost being hit by ATVs in the river.
Sitzmann and Stallard know the river and its riparian ribbon will recover with a few years, because they already saw it happen at another spot on the monument when a fence went up, along Silver Creek near the Horseshoe Ranch.
"The vegetation recovery has just been amazing there," Sitzmann said during a break from building the new fence recently. "We expect this to be the same."
Willows, cottonwoods, sedges, rushes and cattails have re-established along Silver Creek, he said.
"The riparian area is essential for wildlife," he said. "There are not a whole lot of other water sources up here. This is definitely the lifeline of the area."
BLM engineering technician Amos Sloan and Sitzmann are getting help building the fence from two college students who are members of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Peter Danner and Joey Tapaha. The society encourages American Indian representation in science and engineering fields. Danner and Tapaha are Navajos, and Sloan also happens to be Navajo.
BLM Phoenix District Manager Angie Bulletts was touring the project recently during The Daily Courier's visit. She is a native Arizonan, from the Kaibab Band of the Paiutes.
The 2,700-foot-long fence is made of quarter-inch steel panels buried in concrete. Breaks in the fence allow pedestrians and horses to pass through. The BLM is planning to expand parking along the road and later add picnic tables.
Passersby are offering mixed reactions to the fence, just as people did at a September 2010 public hearing. Some predict that people will destroy enough of the fence to get back into the river with their vehicles. Some vandals already were filling the post holes during the night.
Others tell BLM officials they have more support than they know.
Mayer resident Patrick Goodwin said he used to drive his quads on the river here, but too many people are doing it now and it's not a good thing.
"It's going to change things, but I'm not really resentful," Goodwin said of the fence as he drove by the construction project. "There's too many inconsiderate people."
Some of those inconsiderate people violated other federal laws by defacing ancient petroglyphs not far from the fence, splattering images and obscenities all over dozens of the rock art images with white spraypaint. BLM officials are studying ways to try to get rid of the damage, but they aren't sure if it will work. They have not found the criminals.
Bulletts sat silently for a time, staring at the damage. How do today's pueblo people feel when they see this damage to the images their ancestors created more than seven centuries ago, she is asked.
"When they see things like this, it impacts them," she replied.