The final decision on closing Second Crossing for six weeks has been turned over to Tonto National Forest Supervisor Karl Siderits.
"The minute that (U.S. Rep. Rick) Renzi's office was involved, the decision-making was taken from the local level to the Phoenix level," Gila County Legislative Liaison Lionel "Marty" Martinez said. "That's the way it works."
Martinez announced the development at a meeting held Thursday morning at the Whispering Pines fire station. The first public meeting on the closure, it attracted some 200 residents of Whispering Pines and other affected communities.
The Payson Ranger District planned to close Houston Mesa Road at the crossing beginning Oct. 18 to replace a deteriorating concrete apron with a "vented ford" crossing, but a last-minute reprieve on Oct. 15 delayed the project. Renzi, who met with residents on Oct. 11, is taking credit for the delay.
If the plan is implemented, the only access to and from communities east of the crossing will be the Control Road (FR64) -- a dirt road that can be dangerous, especially when wet or covered with snow. Martinez told attendees that District One Supervisor Ron Christensen is in favor of the closure.
"Initially he was against it," Martinez said. "He now feels it has to go forward for a number of reasons, but the overall embracing reason is public safety."
Ed Armenta, head ranger for the Payson Ranger District, spoke after Martinez and apologized for a lack of communication on the project.
"I had always been under the impression this crossing was going to take a maximum of 7-10 days to be closed to the public," he said. "It was after I found out from our engineers that instead of one pouring it was going to take maybe up to three pourings and extend the impact of the closure that we put those fliers out.
"I know those fliers raised a lot of concern from you. They weren't as thorough as maybe they should have been. They should have been on Forest Service letterhead. They should have had contact names. That was my fault."
But Armenta also emphasized that a new crossing is critical, pointing out that replacing it now could avert a much more serious closure in the future.
"Most of you are aware the crossing has some problems and needs to be replaced at some time," Armenta said. "When it goes it's going to go, and it could leave this community in a more critical situation. It could be out for a long time."
Armenta also told attendees that money for the $110,000 project will most likely be lost if it's delayed.
"If we don't do this project, I can't see us ever getting this funding again," he said.
A spirited question and answer period featured entreaties from residents on both sides of the issue. Former Valley television news anchor Bill Close, a resident of Verde Glen, expressed his opposition in terms of human life.
"I heard you say the money will evaporate," Close said. "If it does evaporate, how does that compare with the life of my wife -- we're both in our 80s -- if I have to take her on the Control Road and I meet a propane truck coming around that turn by Geronimo Estates. We've been married 61 years."
Speaking for proponents of the crossing, Rim Trail resident Harry Jones emphasized the need to move on to more pressing issues.
"We've heard all the stories of everybody else's river crossing," Jones said. "They don't get done very often.
"I think we ought to go forward and let them do (Second Crossing) and then start concentrating on some other water issues that the Forest Service is involved with that are much more critical to our community than six weeks of inconvenience."
At the end of the meeting, Martinez took an informal poll of the audience. About 60 percent opposed the closure, with 40 percent in favor.
Armenta plans to make a recommendation to Siderits today (Friday) and a decision could come as early as Monday. After the meeting, Martinez told the Roundup the decision needs to be made soon so the project can be completed before winter.
"I'm going to talk to (Christensen) today or tomorrow and have him call (Siderits) and say, ‘Karl, make the damn decision now.'"