New Tribal Chairman Faces Daunting Challenges With A Smooth Mind

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Jeri DeCola, has a wonderful comeback story.

Kind of like the Tonto Apache Tribe.

And she has a dream.

Kind of like the Tonto Apache Tribe.

The members of the Tonto Apache Tribe last week made a decision crucial to the future of Rim Country -- they re-elected Jeri DeCola to the chairmanship of the tribe.

It was a quiet, dignified election.

Kind of like the Tonto Apache Tribe.

And it was also typical of the tribe that it was a family affair -- with DeCola running against her brother.

Ivan Smith -- the outgoing chair -- has reason to be proud of his service. He has helped build a harmonious relationship with his neighbors -- ensuring that the tribe makes sorely needed contributions to street and other public works projects in both Payson and Star Valley. He has ensured that the tribe acts as a full and valued partner in many endeavors, from the effort to revitalize Main Street to the struggle to figure out how to turn the rodeo grounds into a full-fledged convention center. On his watch, the tribe also took a hand in protecting the Desert Bald Eagle, by joining in a lawsuit to prevent the federal government from delisting the desert population -- sacred to the Apache long before it was embraced by the nation as its fierce-eyed feathered symbol. In so doing, the tribe acted to protect deep traditions -- with modern tools and lawyers' briefs.

The Tribe has a long and complicated history, with ample reason to be bitter and suspicious. They were hunted and hounded and dispossessed -- and waited a long while in the wings of history for the return of even a little bit of land they could control.

But the Apache have a deep culture that treasures harmony and right thinking. They have in the course of history proved themselves fierce enemies -- and loyal friends.

We are happy that leaders like Smith and DeCola have offered Payson and other Rim communities friendship's hand -- because we ride the same spotted pony through the stumble-stones on the edge of a great drop.

DeCola, who has her own story of persistence, grace and service, will have need for those qualities of wisdom that brought her through her own troubles and back to a leadership position at this vital moment in the history of the tribe and its neighbors.

She will have to ensure that the casino with its vital 300 employees weathers this economic hard time -- which they seem to so far be doing with admirable balance.

She will have to find a way to keep the many different conversations going that involve the tribe and its neighbors and will determine the future of the region.

Many of the ambitious community initiatives in that regard seem threatened at the moment by the economic crisis. The Event Center expansion has been undercut by the apparent loss of financing for a key convention hotel, which would have dovetailed with the Tribe's convention facilities. The effort to transform Main Street remains unsteady. The effort to improve the marketing of the town suffered a setback in a host of cutbacks in the shrinking Payson budget. The number of empty storefronts in Payson has multiplied.

The Tribe will have to decide in the next year or so what to do about its modest but valuable allotment of Colorado River water, which could be swapped with the Salt River Project or some other entity for water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir if the tribe can act in concert with Payson as the town sizes and builds its pipeline to bring the Blue Ridge water to town.

In the meantime, the Tribe has acquired a prime piece of Forest Service land in a land swap that DeCola herself played a key role in sponsoring during her previous stint as tribal chair. The tribe has great independence in the use of its land. We hope that DeCola will show the same wisdom and grace that other recent tribal leaders have displayed, in making Payson its partner in decisions that affect us all. Payson can offer considerable assistance in the tribe's planning process -- and will reap great benefits if that land is used properly.

Fortunately, DeCola had deep contacts, important experience -- and what the Apache would call a smooth mind. She has been tested, gone into the wilderness -- and come back with a vision.

Kind of like the Tonto Apache Tribe.

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