Payson residents are about to get one last chance to officially voice their views on the Tonto Apache Tribe's proposed 273-acre Forest Service land exchange.
"Over the next few weeks we'll be finishing up a draft copy of the environmental assessment," said Rod Byers, Payson District land staff officer with the U.S. Forest Service. "We anticipate that it will be available for public review sometime in June. When that is available, it will be out on the street for public review and any final comment before we make a decision on it."
At that time, it's not likely that Byers will be hearing the sounds of silence.
The proposed land exchange, which is south and east of the Tonto Apache Reservation, has been hit with its share of noisy criticism, mostly from residents of three subdivisions Pinion Ridge, Elk Ridge and Rim View Heights which are currently backed by the reservation and a sliver of national forest.
The issues most commonly voiced, Byers said, concern the need for a greenbelt or a buffer zone of up to 100 feet deep between the subdivisions and Indian land, as well as deleterious effects the exchange might have on land values, increased traffic, water usage, the potential for commercial competition, and police jurisdiction on the segment of the Beeline Highway that would cross the property.
Those views and any others will be given one last consideration as soon as the environmental assessment report is complete and ready for distribution, Byers said. As soon as the Forest Service places a legal notice in the East Valley Tribune, the Forest Service's newspaper of record, Byers will begin accepting written comments.
"We're going to notify folks by mail that it's available," he said. "We'll make copies easily available through the subdivision associations, here in our office, at the library and in the Roundup. We'll make sure that they're readily accessible."
Once that information is out on the street for review and comments, Byers and other Forest Service officials will "look at the comments that come back to see whether or not we have already addressed them, or if there's something new that we did not address. If it's something new, we'll have to address that issue before a final decision is made by Regional Forester Eleanor Towns."
Byers emphasized that the Forest Service's solicitation of comments is not a solicitation of votes.
"Quite frankly, most of the comments we'll get will be like, 'I think this exchange is a good idea, so I vote for it,' or 'I protest it, I vote against it.' But this isn't a voting contest. We're looking for feedback on whether or not we addressed the issues that have been raised or not ... and if not, what do we need to look at additionally?"
Because it is impossible to predict the ultimate value of the comments, Byers said, " it's a little hard to pin down a time frame" as to when Towns' final decision on the matter will be handed down.
"But when she makes that decision, whichever way it goes, and the legal notice is published, the 45-day appeal period will begin," he said. "If someone simply doesn't like the decision, that's not good enough. To appeal, what they have to do is cite specific reasons, such as, 'This is what you failed to take into account.' That done, we would then address the appeal."
If there are no appeals, Byers added, the Forest Service will go with the decision. If there are appeals, then the regional forester has to determine whether or not they're valid and the decision should be readdressed."
Before all that, however, "There's quite a bit of rewriting that needs to be done (on the environmental assessment report) to address two or three of the issues. We've got an Interdisciplinary Team meeting Wednesday down in Phoenix to do that, then we'll take their comments back to the consultants and tell them, 'Hey, this is what you need to address in a different way.' So we're looking at a month or so before it will be finished."