An environmental assessment documenting the analysis of the proposed Tonto Apache land exchange has been completed and is available for public review and comments until Feb. 11.
"Essentially, all of the issues raised during this process within the forest service and when we've gone to the public have been looked at and documented through the environmental analysis process," Rod Byers of the Payson Ranger District said. "Basically, what this assessment does is to outline what the findings were relative to each of those issues."
The Tonto Apache's original, preferred alternative is to exchange four parcels of land within the Coconino, Prescott, Sitgreaves and Tonto National Forests totaling about 405 acres for about 273 acres of federal land adjoining tribal land at the south end of Payson.
The other three proposals, Byers said, are not to do any land exchange; to "peel off" 20-odd acres from tribe-owned land on the west side of the Beeline Highway; or to "peel off" additional 10-acre increments of Tonto Apache land if the tribe's preferred alternative is given a green light.
"If the land they're asking for is of higher value than the four parcels they're offering," Byers said of the latter alternative, "we would (absorb) these increments until they reached equal value."
Public comments on the environmental assessment will be accepted until Feb. 11 30 days following the date a legal notice on the matter was first published.
"If people think that we didn't hear their issues in the way they meant to express them, or if there are other issues that we did not address but should have addressed," Byers said, "this is the last opportunity people have to get those issues into the process."
It is not an opportunity, however, for anyone to call or write expressing their support or nonsupport for the land-exchange.
"What we need to determine now is whether or not the public thinks an adequate job was done in identifying and addressing the issues pertinent to the alternatives," Byers said.
After Feb. 11, all materials will be turned over to the regional forester, who will have 30 days to make a decision based on public comments; the environmental, social and economic aspects of each alternative; and their conformity with the Forest Plan.
Once that process is completed, Byers said, the Forest Service will publicly announce which of the alternatives has been chosen. At that point, a 45-day appeal period will begin.
"If someone just flat-out doesn't like the decision at that point, they have 45 days to tell us why, and what it is we should do differently," Byers said. "Whether or not the decision will go forward depends on the outcome of those appeals."
It is Byers' expectation that the entire process will be completed by late May or early June of this year.
Vivian Burdette, chairperson of the Tonto Apache Council, said she could not yet offer a view of the land-exchange alternatives from a tribal perspective.
"I have not even looked at (the environmental assessment)," she said, "so I really can't say anything right now ... I'll get to it when I can get to it. We've got 30 days to respond."
The assessment was performed by SEC Inc. the registered trade name for Southwestern Environmental Consultants, a Sedona-based firm specializing in natural and cultural resource management, environmental and land planning, civil engineering, and land surveying.
Copies of the environmental assessment may be obtained from Payson District Ranger Rod Byers at 1009 East Highway 260 in Payson, or by calling 474-7900. Subsequent comments can be mailed or telephoned to Byers or Emily Garber, Tonto National Forest, 2324 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix, AZ 85006; by calling 602-225-5200; or by faxing 602-225-5295.
Requests for the assessment, or to submit comments on it, can be sent via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.