Science or the lack of it is becoming a major arguing point in determining the merits of the Town of Payson's application to drill 21 exploratory wells near Mayfield Canyon north of Star Valley.
First, an official for Salt River Project ridiculed the town's claim that the proposed test wells constitute nothing more than a scientific experiment. Now an environmental advocacy organization that bills itself as "science-based" has registered its opposition to the proposal.
The Center for Biological Diversity, an organization that claims 6,000 members, said the "proposed Mayfield well drillings are clearly a continuation" of what it calls a "disturbingly close relationship between the Forest Service, the town, and private real estate speculators."
In a three-page letter to District Ranger Ed Armenta, Brian Segee of the Tucson-based organization cites what he calls "the checkered history of land exchanges between the Forest Service and the Town of Payson" as an exacerbating factor.
"As is well known," Segee writes, "the Forest Service has eagerly traded away public land to Payson for many years. Alarmingly, 75 percent of the land currently within town limits is former National Forest land which has been privatized through land trades."
Segee said much of the land in question has been "converted into golf courses and high-end, gated 'communities.'" He finds it "objectionable" that the Forest Service, which is charged with administering lands under its purview for the benefit of all Americans, "is not only facilitating, but directly encouraging and participating in such community growth."
Calling the proposed wells a "perversion of Forest Service duties," Segee concludes that the Payson Ranger District "creates the impression" that it has become "more of a land broker than a responsible steward."
Rod Byers, land staff officer for the district, said Segee's comments will be considered in the environmental assessment that will be conducted along with everybody elses.
"They have the right to their opinions just like any individual or group does," Byers said.
But Chuck Heron, chairman of the Diamond Star Citizens' Action Coalition which opposes the proposal, said environmental issues are at the very heart of the matter.
"If you read between the lines in the SRP letter, they are concerned about environmental damage," Heron said. We've seen a lot of elk we normally don't see because they're having to come further south for their water. The springs over in the Mayfield Canyon area are already drying up."
Town Manager Rich Underkofler said it's not the town's fault.
"We've been very careful to make sure our sites were located very close to existing trails, to make sure we've avoided any riparian habitat, to look only in places that will not have an adverse impact on private water supplies, and to avoid any archaeological sites," he said. "Those were the ground rules given to us in 1996 when we first started our exploration."
The town had hoped to avoid paying for a costly environmental assessment.
"The objections from the Diamond Point/Star Valley people, along with the SRP letter has moved us into doing the assessment," he said.
The input from the Center for Biological Diversity hasn't helped.
"Those environmental groups have shut down quite of bit of activity in Arizona," Underkofler said.
Town Public Works Director Buzz Walker said he doesn't know much about the Center for Biological Diversity, but frequently sees their name connected with these kinds of interventions.
"It seems to be the strategy these days not to let anybody get their foot in the door," Walker said.
But the fact that the town now has to foot the bill for an environmental assessment might mean more wells rather than less. While the town recently announced it was voluntarily dropping the three wells closest to Diamond Point Shadows from its original application to drill 21, Walker says the number could now very well be higher.
"If we're going through an environmental assessment, we want to do it in the biggest area possible," he said. "It's a delaying tactic, but on the other hand we will have that much more of the work done."
Segee admitted he has not visited the Rim country for a firsthand look.
"My job is to respond to these kinds of situations and to express our concerns," he said. "We have more questions than answers right now, and we are asking for information."
Segee said the Center for Biological Diversity was contacted by several private citizens, but that he has not heard from the Diamond Star Citizens' Action Coalition.
Heron said the coalition is reluctant to get environmental groups involved at this time.
"I don't know if they were on the Forest Service's distribution list, but nobody out here contacted them," he said.
At least one other environmental organization the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club has registered its opposition to the exploratory wells. In a letter to Byers, Sierra Club Conservation Chairman Don Steuter questioned whether the town had truly explored all conservation and recycling options as it has claimed.
Steuter also said that rapid growth may not be prudent for communities located in ponderosa pine forests.
"Such growth greatly expands the urban wildlands interface, exponentially increasing the risk of property damage from wildfire and making management of our forests more costly," he wrote.
Walker doesn't understand how anybody could argue against "fact-finding about resources on public lands.
"Why would anybody want to deal out of ignorance on an issue so important," he said. "These are not production wells. These are science wells."
He also points out that water makes strange bedfellows.
"These groups like SRP and the others don't want Star Valley pumping groundwater any more than us.
"They're just playing one against the other."
Segee said that what's going on shouldn't be characterized as a water war.
"It's way too early for that," he said.
But Heron may have a more realistic attitude. He pointed out that Mark Twain once said, "Whiskey's for drinking. Water's for fighting about."
However you characterize it, the town wants it known that it doesn't intend to back down.
"What's going on is odd, but in the end, we'll be there," Walker said.