Gila County

Forest management, limited water supplies and unemployment spell year of challenges for leaders


One of the hottest issues of discussion in Payson and Gila County centers around water, or lack thereof whether it's drinking water or the dwindling water levels in the lakes and streams due to insufficient winter rain and snow.

Ron Christensen, Gila County Supervisor for District 1, has his concerns not only for drinking water, but the drought the county has experienced the past several years. He expressed his concern in talking about the need to protect human life and property from the dangers of wildfire in the forests.

Christensen who also serves on the National Homeland Security Committee for domestic terrorism fears for the national forests and their susceptibility to fire.

"We have a major concern over Arizona and New Mexicowe are at ground zero in the droughts right now," Christensen said. "We are so dry and there is so much fuel."

He also expressed concern over the possibility of a major fire if the state does not receive moisture between now and June, when the Rim country typically enters lightning season.

"With the density (in the forest), it is going to be catastrophic," Christensen said. "We don't have the resources and neither does the Forest Service or anyone else to take care of a fire of that magnitude. We are going to burn thousands of acres."

In June of 1990, one of the most catastrophic forest fires in Arizona struck the Rim country. The Dude Fire took the lives of six firefighters, untold numbers of wildlife, and destroyed dozens of homes, including the historic Zane Grey Cabin. Gila County was declared a disaster area.

The fire was fueled by dry, thick underbrush and grew at an uncontrollable rate as it crowned from treetop to treetop, spreading across the Mogollon Rim. The fire became a nighttime spectacle for Payson residents as it flared.

"The Dude Fire was 29,000 acres, but we could be looking at 100,000 acres if we are not very careful," Christensen said.

Christensen said the restrictions on cattle in the forest has not only hurt the ranchers, but has led to an overgrowth of brush and grass which fuels fire.

"Cattle are not the demon that some of the more radical environmental groups profess them to be," Christensen said. "If they are properly dispersed and properly rotated and so forth, they can be extremely beneficial in keeping much of the undergrowth that is growing in the forest under control.

"Timbering is also almost a thing of the past here, now as well. And that's got to happen again, we have to get back in there and thin it out. If we are not going to start to do that, very quickly, we are just going to face these things every season and our seasons are growing longer for burning," Christensen said.

Christensen said he did not believe that the Clinton administration or (Bruce) Babbit's position of shutting down the forests to cattle and the timber industry was well thought out when they decided to turn the forests into wilderness.

"Almost all wilderness areas at some point will burn because of that," Christensen said.

Christensen said he believes more faith needs to be placed in the hands of the farmers and ranchers when it comes to managing the forests.

"We have people who have ranched and farmed here for generations who know more about management of the forests than the young people coming here out of college," Christensen said. "They have a lot of book-learning, but they don't have any practical application."

Christensen said his faith in controlling the problems in the forest lay with ranchers like, Sandy Sanborn of Globe.

"They are driving him out of business right now, and he's got more knowledge about how that rangeland should be taken care of and managed than all of the other people (within the government) put together," Christensen said. "They (ranchers) have to make a living off the land they know how to take care of it."


Christensen said that Gila County's water problems are well known throughout the state.

"There's no mystery about it, we have a limited supply here," Christensen said. "Payson had a CAP allocation which they sold, so we have to find a different way to go about finding water."

Christensen said that over the past several years, county officials have been open to joining forces with the Town of Payson in its search for water, but it has often turned into a power struggle throughout the term of one mayor after another. However, as the water situation becomes graver, the talks seem to be opening up again.

Christensen said the county joined forces with the Bureau of Reclamation several years ago for water research and the Town of Payson most recently was given the same opportunity.

"We have been wasting a lot of time over political things," Christensen said. "The most unfortunate thing is every two years, many of the council members change."

Christensen said he feels the reluctance over forming an alliance is fear by town officials of losing control of the water resources.

"How can you lose something you don't have?" Christensen asked.

Christensen said the town does not have the water now and will never get it without going outside the 20 square miles surrounding Payson.

"We have to get outside this," Christensen said.

Christensen said that the county and the town need to work with the various Native American tribes in the search for water.

"The Tonto Apaches have a CAP allocation," Christensen said. "We have to work with the Navajos, the Hopis and the Zunis, because they sit out here and they have good water rights, claims, treaties. If the Valley (Phoenix area) wasn't getting our water right now, their growth would have been forced to stop a long time ago.

"Here we sit on one of the largest water sheds in the whole state and we are not capturing any water off of it. It is going somewhere else.

"We need to capture some of that. And we can work those deals. I have sat down with (Salt River Project), they are very willing to work with us on these things."


The recent layoff of 300 people working at the Phelps Dodge mine was devastating to Gila County. Financially it hurt not only the employees, but the economy of Gila County, especially in the Hayden-Winkleman area.

Christensen said there are some hopeful signs in the near future regarding the mining industry.

"There is a company out of Canada, called Carlota, and they have spent something like $60 million in the area of developing the old Asarco mine," Christensen said. "The price of copper right now is somewhere around 75 cents and when it goes up to around 80 cents, or so, they will probably go into production and immediately hire somewhere around 400 people, so that could turn around rather quickly.

Christensen said that Kinnecott Copper has recently discovered in Gila County "one of the richest, largest bodies of copper ore at 4,500 feet."

The mine is located near the Gila/Pinal County line outside of Superior.

"It probably can be developed within five to seven years into the largest North American underground copper mine in the United States," Christensen said.

"They are talking about billions of dollars."

Christensen said the mine is expected to produce copper for 20 to 30 years, or longer.

The venture could turn the economy of Gila County and Arizona on an upward swing.

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