It all started with the firebreaks. That and the restless mental fidgeting of Payson Councilman Andy Romance.
For most people, firebreaks look like a problem -- especially the thinned ring of land around Payson intended as a last line of defense against wildfires.
But after mulling the matter, Romance decided the firebreaks looked more like an opportunity.
Heck. Payson's an outdoor town. The residents love the woods. The economy depends on attracting tourists eager to savor the mountain air and an outdoor lifestyle. And here, the Forest Service was out there busily clearing a path all along the outskirts of the town.
Couldn't we, like, do something with those firebreaks?
And so in the "why not?" workings of a councilman's brain was born the Payson Area Trails System (PATS), an ambitious, million-dollar plan to spend the next 10 years turning a fragmented, poorly signed, fitfully maintained, 20 miles of disconnected trails into a 50-mile network, connecting much of Payson and Star Valley with looping meanders that will cater to joggers, riders, bikers, birders, hikers, tourists and town residents who need a lungful of air and the sound of birds to remember why they live here.
Romance said the trails system will generate new "mojo" for Payson, if it's complete and built to a clear standard.
"If we do this thing well, we will be the only place in Arizona where one can walk around the entire town, connected to our commercial and recreation centers within town, all on a marked, maintained and mountain-cool trails network. It can be both desirable infrastructure for Payson residents and an economic foundation to keep tourists coming back to visit."
Payson and the Forest Service actually laid the groundwork for a comprehensive trails system nearly a decade ago, but work lapsed and the plan lay dormant for years before Romance revived the idea last year with questions about the firebreaks, said Mary McMullen, the town's trails and outdoor recreation coordinator.
Now, a squad of about 50 volunteers has donated thousands of dollars worth of time to build new trail sections and put signs up on existing, poorly marked Forest Service trails, to create the backbone of what will one day become one of the state's most comprehensive trails systems. Not only will broad trails of bonded compressed granite run through every area of town, but the trails will connect newly marked and refurbished Forest Service trails winding through the woods and major regional trails such as the Arizona and Highline trails.
"We have about 50 people who have volunteered and about 30 people who come to meetings regularly," said McMullen, "and they're just a fantastic, enthusiastic group of people who want to get this thing off the ground."
Volunteer crews have already finished putting up signs and making improvements to the 5.6 miles of trails that include the Peach Orchard Trail and a loop to the rodeo grounds. The trail offers views of the town and the Mazatzal Mountains, as well as a stretch along a shaded stream.
Trail backers hope to win grants from the lottery-financed Heritage Fund and roadway improvement grants from the Arizona Department of Transportation, which could accelerate the construction schedule. So far, about 20 miles of the proposed 50-mile system exists, much of it on Forest Service land. The town plans to spend about $100,000 per year for the next decade to complete the comprehensive system, said McMullen.
Most of that money will go to constructing about 20 miles worth of urban trails. The urban trails cost about $10,000 per quarter-mile to lay down a 8- to 12-foot-wide path of compressed, decomposed granite treated with an emulsifier to make it more like soft pavement, than loose sand. A test section of the bonded, compressed granite laid down near Rumsey Park in the Woodhill neighborhood has so far held up well to foot, bike and horse traffic.
Perhaps half of the final trails system will run along paved streets, offering joggers, bikers, dog walkers and people out for a twilight stroll, a safe place to amble. The rest of the trails system will meander through the woods, looping past archaeological sites, lakes, streams, deep forests and scenic overlooks.
Ultimately, the trails system should dovetail with the town's effort to serve residents and promote Payson as a town with an outdoor lifestyle. The town's recently unveiled Web site redesign and marketing plan promotes Payson as a mountain community with a Western heritage that serves as the gateway to mountain adventures.
The completed trails system will give the town bragging rights when it comes to outdoor recreation, but it will still be only a shadow of the extensive trails system that Flagstaff has created as a major selling point for visitors and residents.
However, the system will be much more extensive than almost any other town in the region.
Moreover, establishing the trail routes now will ensure that any new development approved along the proposed routes of any of the trails will contribute a new link to the system, say city officials.
"When you have a master plan in place that's adopted and ready to go -- when a development comes along, they'll jump on board," said Romance.
"We've lost a lot of opportunity over the years because something like this wasn't in place -- but it's never too late. I've been in Payson for 20 years and I wanted to see the community grow well and not just grow."
Anyone who wishes to volunteer to help develop the trails system can e-mail McMullen at mmcmullen@ ci.payson.az.us.
In addition, the town's Web site has maps, photos and directions for residents who want to use any of the existing trails sections. The town parks office also has published a brochure about the PATS. You can get a copy at the parks office in Green Valley Park, or call (928) 474-5242, ext. 7 to find other locations to get the brochure.