Charm Of Pine-Strawberry Remains Unchanged

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Forces of change have been at work in the woodland communities of Pine and Strawberry. They've transformed views of the forest and reshaped local points of view, but the area's friendly, small-town charm remains inviting and intact.

Bark beetles, which have killed thousands of drought-stressed pines in the Rim country, have brought logging trucks back to Pine and Strawberry to cull the dead wood. Lumbermen have been harvesting the lifeless brown pines to slow the beetles' advance to healthy trees, reduce the fire danger and salvage the usable timber.

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Ira Gibel, president of the volunteer group Take Pride of Pine and Strawberry, can walk out his back door and into the tree-thinned buffer that the Forest Service cut into the national forest to protect Pine from wildfire. The buffer has a park-like quality -- big trees and lots of open space -- that Gibel's dog, Ginger, seems to truly appreciate.

And with television images of the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which destroyed 465 homes in the Show Low area, seared into local memory, residents and the Forest Service have been thinning healthy trees here, too.

"When (the Forest Service) first started cutting, it really made me sad," said Roz Gibel, who owns a home in Pine that borders the national forest. "I hated it. But after I learned a little more about wildfire and forest health, I was really very grateful."

During the past year, the Forest Service has been thinning the trees and underbrush around the perimeters of Pine and Strawberry to provide the communities with firebreak buffers. The buffer zones have park-like qualities -- big trees, generously spaced apart, with open ground that's free of brush and bramble. Beyond the firebreaks, the trees are crowded and flanked with underbrush -- rife for wildfire.

Initially, the Pine-Strawberry firebreak plan received a lukewarm reception, but after residents watched their neighbors to the east lose their homes, they marshaled into action.

The Take Pride Project of Pine and Strawberry organized a community letter-writing campaign in early 2003 and sent 5,000 signed letters from local residents to state leaders, urging them to remove the dead bark beetle trees and ease the area's wildfire risk.

Gov. Janet Napolitano, who later declared the bark beetle blight in Arizona to be a state of emergency, said the messages from Pine and Strawberry aided in her decision.

"That was our most important project so far," Take Pride president Ira Gibel said. "The dead trees up here make for a bad situation. We wanted to do a project that would help our community, and I'd like to think that our letter-writing campaign had an impact. I think it was our best project."

State prisoners have since been sent to Pine and Strawberry to help homeowners thin the number of live trees on their lots and remove the dead ones. Gibel, who owns just under an acre in Pine with his wife, Roz, said he's trimmed about 300 trees off his own property and many of his neighbors have done the same.

Planting the future

But while residents have been thinning trees in some areas, volunteers have been planting them in others.

In March 2004, volunteers from Take Pride and the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue squad planted nearly half a dozen drought-resistant trees in a new mini-park at the heart of downtown Pine.

The park, which features community benches, covered picnic tables, xeriscaping, handicap access and Pine's original library building, is south of the Randall House off Highway 87.

"It's going to be a nice little place to hang out," volunteer park designer John Jacobsen said before the park was completed. "It'll be the kind of place where people can picnic and have fun."

The P-S Archeological and Historical Society provided the library -- which was built in the 1920s -- to serve as the park's centerpiece.

The building, an old guest cabin, became Pine's first library in the mid-1970s, historical society president Melvin Van Vorst said. It was replaced around 1980 and moved to the community center to provide storage space.

In December 2003, two forklifts and a flatbed truck hauled the building across the highway to the park, where it will serve as a historic exhibit. Gila County donated more than 400 county library books, which date from the late 1800s to the 1960s, to be displayed in the building.

"We're going to paint the building its original color -- an aged-wood gray," Van Vorst said, "and we'll install a plexiglass door so visitors can view the exhibit from the outside. They won't be able to go inside. The (13-by-18-foot) building is too small."

Although Randall Park -- named for the family in Pine that provided the use of the land -- will open in April, the library's grand opening won't be until Memorial Day Weekend.

The park project -- which is fully named Randall Park and the Original Pine Library -- was funded by a $1,500 Arizona Historical Society grant, the Take Pride Project, the P-S Historical Society, the Randall family and community labor donations.

Building up downtown

The mini-park is just the latest in a series of downtown enhancement projects in Pine.

During the past year, the Take Pride Project has xeriscaped the entrance to the Pine post office and installed nearly 20 memorial benches around town. The benches were purchased by local residents for $200 each and fitted with customized memorial plaques.

A coalition of local volunteer groups relocated and refurbished the community center's playground. They moved it away from the highway and added new equipment, fencing and wood mulch to soften playground falls.

The historical society placed historical markers on 28 historic buildings in Pine and Strawberry and created a historic walking tour brochure, which is available at the Pine museum for $1. The tour details the history behind such places as the Strawberry Schoolhouse and the Hunt Ranch in Strawberry and the Way Station in Pine.

The museum and cultural hall in Pine were both fitted with new heating systems, and, for the first time, air conditioning.

"We needed the air conditioning in the museum to preserve the artifacts," Van Vorst said. "We needed it in the hall to preserve people's comfort levels."

Further north

In Strawberry, the historical society is using a $10,000 Gila County grant to restore the Strawberry Schoolhouse, the oldest standing schoolhouse in Arizona. Workers are replacing the log building's deck and flagpole, Van Vorst said, and the society has hired a restoration specialist to replace the chinking and treat the logs with Ark Oil, a preservative that rejuvenates and protects the wood.

Getting to the schoolhouse, which will reopen Memorial Day Weekend, will be easier this year. The county recently finished a $1.5-million project to widen and pave Fossil Creek Road from the Beeline to a point half a mile past the schoolhouse.

But for all the improvements Pine-Strawberry residents have seen this year, there are those who hope some things will never change.

"It's nice and quiet here," John Jacobsen of Pine said. "There are no stoplights and you can see the stars. We like that."

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