The Roundup selected a half a dozen people in the know to reflect on Rim country's progress in 2004:
Tonto National Forest
Most people spend their days in offices no larger than 3,500 square feet.
Not Ed Armenta.
As head ranger of the Payson Ranger District, he oversees 450,000 acres of Tonto National Forest, and last year, he devoted most of his time to preventing wildfire danger on his lands.
"I think we're making some good headway in regards to getting rid of hazardous fuels," he said.
Last year, Armenta tied up environmental impact studies, leading the way for a new fire break around Payson.
With the bureaucracy out of the way, Armenta and his staff can work on making Payson safer during and after fire season.
"We can move forward with prescribed burning," he said. "The fire clearing protects the community. If we can stop a fire from getting uncontrollable, we can also stop erosion and flooding."
Armenta and his staff of U.S. Forest Service employees have already cleared foliage and created fire breaks around Whispering Pine, Kohl's Ranch, Strawberry and Pine.
As crews thin debris, brush, trees and branches pile on the path of the fire break, rendering
the breaks useless. At the beginning of last year, Armenta said 30,000 piles of brush and debris littered new fire breaks.
"Having those piles around is a fire danger," he said.
Armenta applauded his employees for getting through 29,000 of those piles, and looks forward to having the rest of the debris burned before the beginning of the next fire season.
"That is the result of good employees," Armenta said.
But, Armenta stressed, fire isn't always a destructive force. He said he also spends time educating the community about the benefits of fire.
"Fire done at the right time is part of the ecosystem," he said. "We're trying to bring fire back to its natural state."
Armenta said he loves the Rim country and is passionate about protecting what has drawn him and many others to this area.
"The more I live here, the more I enjoy the people, and the
more I realize that a lot of people here want to do the right thing," he said.
Realtor, basketball coach
Basketball season doesn't end when the final buzzer sounds at the end of the last game of the season.
"It's a year around job," said Payson High School girls head basketball coach, Rory Huff. "There is summer league, tournaments, Lady Longhorn basketball camp, and fund-raising ... that's the hardest part of the job."
For a guy who coaches varsity basketball, works full time as a real estate broker, referees football games in the fall and raises a family, Huff makes it all seem easy.
"You just learn to manage," he said. "I would like to think I'm a role model."
Last year, through fund-raisers like the annual fish fry, Huff and the Lady Horns earned $12,000 for the basketball team.
"Since I've been in Payson, I've had nothing but great kids and great parents," Huff said. "The fund-raising is good because it makes the kids feel like they've earned it."
The money covers costs where school budgets and tax credits fall short, helping the athletic community stay strong and interesting to students.
"Sports kept me in school. I hope I can keep other kids in school," he said. "If sports are done, right it's a good reflection on the community."
And this year, the Lady Horns were on fire. They made it into the first round of the playoffs with a record of 17-8. Haylee, Huff's daughter, is one of the team's star players.
"Coaching your own daughter is a challenge," he said. "I play everybody equal. They earn their playing."
In the off-season, Huff puts on the zebra stripes and refs all Payson High School football home games.
Huff sees Payson changing and growing responsibly. He likes hearing the rumors about the feasibility studies conducted by the town last year to build a YMCA.
"A recreation center is very important for the community," Huff said. "You have to grow. Without growth you go backward and I prefer to move ahead."
Mesa del Caballo Fire Chief
Be sure to notice the lack of overgrowth the next time you visit Mesa del Caballo.
The cleanliness gives Chuck Jacobs pride; the work represents a partnership he and the community have developed over the past year.
"We go out every month and get together with the community," Jacobs said. "We spend half a day piling brush and burning it."
Jacobs, dressed in navy blue from head to toe, grips a cup of coffee while politely excusing himself to answer calls.
He's on duty as chief of the Houston Mesa Fire Department, one of his two part-time jobs.
"I retired in 1998," he said. "But I enjoy what I'm doing."
Even when it's slow, as it sometimes is in Mesa del, Jacobs is always busy.
After taking a year off following his retirement as Payson's first fire chief, Jacobs did consulting work for small-town fire departments until early 2004, when the Houston Mesa fire department lost its leadership.
That's when Jacobs stepped in, first as interim fire chief, and then the appointment became permanent.
Over the past year, Jacobs has rebuilt the foundation of the small fire department by recruiting and training personnel, while bolstering the volunteer base.
"We have a good solid core of volunteers," he said. "We've come a long way,"
Reducing the threat of wildfire danger, as coordinator of Regional Payson Area Project, keeps Jacobs busy in his other part-time job.
For fun, Jacobs drives his "rather competent Jeep" with the Rim Country 4-Wheelers club, 96 rigs and 197 members strong. Jacobs serves as president.
"The people are great," Jacobs said. "Most of the people moved here because they didn't like where they were living. They don't want this place to become like where they came from."
Whispering Pines Homeowner's Association
Pat Johnson's probably the only person in town who keeps a javelina and a mountain lion in her office -- taxidermied of course.
At the chamber, she oversees membership, finance and the nation's oldest continuous rodeo, but the leadership she exhibited last year, as president of the Whispering Pines Homeowners Association, just goes to show that people can and do make a difference.
"Our community fought together to prevent a culvert from being installed," Johnson said. "It was a public safety issue."
A culvert doesn't sound like much, until you consider that Whispering Pines is a fairly isolated subdivision nearly 10 miles northeast of Payson.
To install the culvert, construction crews would have had to shut down for as few as five days or as long as a month, the only safe route -- Houston Mesa Road -- into Payson, leaving the Control Road, which winds underneath the Rim and dumps out on Highway 87, about 8 miles north of Payson, the only alternative.
"The Control Road is full of washes," she said. "It's narrow. It's wash-boardy and it's winding. If you're in a passenger car, you're in trouble."
Johnson said the closure, planned on the cusp of winter, would been proven especially hazardous to the elderly residents of Whispering Pines. With Houston Mesa Road blocked, and the Control Road the only option, there's no expeditious way to respond to an emergency,
Johnson, not one to end her complaining with the ladies in her coffee klatsch, got on the phone to Rep. Rick Renzi.
On his visit to Rim country, Renzi undoutdedly saw the concrete dips in the road, known as second and third crossings, where the East Verde River traverses Houston Mesa Road. When the rain is heavy, these crossings are treacherous and sometimes, impassable.
Johnson is working with Renzi to secure enough funds to upgrade the road's infrastructure and put in bypass roads when construction begins.
"The ideal solution is to put bridges in at second and third crossings," Johnson said. "They shouldn't take a Band-Aid approach by putting in a culvert."
Marc Kaplan is always on the phone.
Kaplan, who's in charge of buffing the image of Payson's largest employer and entertainment source, is always on the move, always busy.
"I think the more enterprise in Payson, the better it is," said Kaplan in between bites of a vegetarian burger. "Growth is great because it brings employment and more facilities so people don't have to drive."
Kaplan should know. As Mazatzal Casino's marketing director, his job is to schmooze, hobnob and put on a heck of party.
Kaplan must be doing something right. The recent groundbreaking of the Tonto Apache Tribe's new casino, hotel and event center, which will add 100 more machines, increase the number of card tables and add capacity, bringing the casino's total square footage to 35,000, was Kaplan's biggest accomplishment of 2004.
"It's going to be the start of something good for the tribe," Kaplan said. "Now there's going to be a place to put big groups."
And all those people need entertainment. For the past five years, Kaplan's made sure they get it. Last year, Kaplan put on more than 40 concerts, festivals and fund-raising events. Every time an organization needs help, Mazatzal Casino is there to lend a hand.
"I've felt comfortable since day one," said Kaplan who has worked for a handful of other tribes over the years. "The Tonto Apaches are by far the most generous and philanthropic."
Although Kaplan takes his fund-raising tasks seriously, he's always ready for a good time. That's why the Second Annual Testicle Festival, held last year during rodeo weekend, with its wet T-shirt and bareback riding contests, mechanical bull riding, beer garden, and of course testicle tasting, is his favorite event, and the casino's biggest crowd-pleaser.
Kaplan's passion is his work, and he's constantly striving to improve the casino's image and its entertainment offerings.
"I enjoy my job," he said. "I enjoy the people I work with. I always put in long work weeks, but I don't consider it work."
Payson Community Kids
As Marcy Rogers walks into the basement of her four-bedroom house, two dozen children, from toddlers to teenagers, drop their late-afternoon snack -- submarine sandwiches and potato chips -- and rush toward her with arms outstretched.
She's carrying an armload of heart-shaped sugar cookies for the children to decorate for Valentine's Day. She tries to shift the load enough to return the youngsters' hugs.
Rogers, town of Payson housing coordinator, and director of Payson Community Kids, a nonprofit, privately funded youth program, has spent the past year improving the lives of 30 children.
"I hate wasted life," she said. "I really think the more you do for others, the happier you're going to be."
On March 1, Rogers enriched Payson Community Kids when she hired teacher Susan Gerard to oversee the after-school program, which operates year-round.
"Many of the kids' grades improved last year," said Rogers. "We have five to six tutors. The older kids help out the others."
The benefits of Payson Community Kids reached beyond providing tutoring, food and shelter. Last year, Rogers secured $4,000 worth of dental work -- mostly cleanings and fillings -- for her charges, helped parents apply for Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System and saw at least three parents go back to school.
As the parents improved their lives, Rogers and her staff mentored the children on becoming good citizens.
Rogers is working on buying a second house with the organization's funds. The additional property will allow Rogers to better serve the children's needs, especially those with disabilities.
"A new house would springboard the program," said Rogers, who will make accessibility a priority.
Meanwhile, 2004, she said, was a great year for the program.
"We're thrilled with our center and what we have."