Two of the top leaders in the U.S. government were in Payson this week as the guests of Congressman Rick Renzi (R-District 1).
Renzi brought Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and Undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture Mark Rey to discuss forest health and the Endangered Species Act.
Congressman Renzi, Kempthorne and Rey, along with Gila County District One Supervisor Tommie Martin, met with a group of about 60 people Nov. 4 at Gila Community College in Payson.
"I am thrilled these men now have a firsthand knowledge and true sense of Payson and Northern Gila County," Martin said.
Greeting the crowd, Martin said she was very excited to have the men who have worked so hard to help protect the forests of the Rim Country see the area their efforts have been helping. She said the visit was another plank in raising the profile of Payson.
"I was raised here," Martin said. "We watched in horror as the health and function of this land rolled back and all three of these men had a hand in starting to turn it around." She likened the difficulty of getting momentum behind the effort to "trying to turn an aircraft carrier with a bass boat."
"I think it's a hell of a deal that we get rated the most fire-prone county year after year and yet we come out the most fire-safe," Martin said.
Kempthorne served in the U.S. Senate from 1985 through 1992 and was serving as governor of Idaho when called to the post of Secretary of the Interior.
Rey oversees the Forest Service and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
"The money we have received, and are getting, for fire reduction came through the Department of the Interior," Martin said, adding Sen. Jon Kyl did the work to get the funds to Payson.
On the topic of the money being used to reduce fuels and improve the forests, Renzi reminded the audience that the money used to make a difference came from residents, not politicians.
"It's your tax dollars, not Washington's," he said. "We've been able to bring the money back here to protect this area from fires."
Rey gave an overview of that work.
"Starting in fiscal year 2001 to 2007, we will have treated 225.5 million acres of federally affected land, reducing fuel loads," he said. "This year, 700 primary homes were lost and I know that sounds like a lot, but, in comparison, 2,000 were lost in the year 2002 and 3,000 homes were lost in the year 2003."
Rey credited initiatives such as the Healthy Forest Restoration Act and similar legislation for the lower number of lost homes.
Kempthorne said something people need to keep in mind is the broad scope of the Department of Interior, which manages everything from wildlife services to fish and game and is the third largest law enforcement agency in the federal government.
All national monuments, such as the Lincoln Memorial, are under its jurisdiction as well.
"As we're speaking, there is a memorial service taking place for five firefighters who lost their lives in California," he said. "We have a responsibility to all our firefighters -- these marvelous men and women -- to do what we can to help them and to protect them. We need to get fuel loads back away from structures. It's part of our responsibility as citizens.
"You have a lot of fuel load and you know that, you've had fires here right at the edges of your community. Had it not been for the fuels reduction activities, things could have been worse (this summer).
"This year almost 175,000 acres burned in Arizona. The state of Arizona is ranked among the top five for fuels treatment. I believe that there is more that needs to be done."
Kempthorne also spoke about the economics of the forest -- making access to the products resulting from fuels reduction programs more streamlined.
"There isn't enough money in the entire U.S. Treasury to take care of the forest problems," Martin said. "But there is in the economy."
She said the work needs to be done to beef up the infrastructure and rules to make it possible to use forest products.
A stewardship program on the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest is a good beginning, Martin said. It gives industry some guarantees about the raw materials they can use and keeps the use within environmentalist-friendly parameters.
Martin said (Renzi, Kempthorne and Rey) are well aware of the stumbling blocks to optimal management of the forest and watersheds, as well as both sides of the Endangered Species Act.
"They're very down-to-earth people with a firsthand knowledge and awareness of us now," Martin said. "And it's my job to keep us in front of them."