Take the money and pray — with one eye open.
That about sums up the Payson Council’s decision to accept a $60,000 state grant to build trails and protect an archeological site, but put off spending any of it for at least a year in hopes the economy will turn around so the town can afford to come up with the required matching money.
The grant would pay for about 1.5 miles of trail leading from the Payson Campus of the Gila Community College to Goat Camp Ruins, the inconspicuous remains of a village that once formed the hub for a network of surrounding settlements.
The $128,000 project would pay for the trail, sturdy protective fencing for the five-acre site and signs to explain the significance of the low piles of stone and barely discernable outlines of walls, now lost in the juniper on the rocky site just off Tyler Parkway.
The trail and ruins site would provide an attraction for tourists and easy hike or ride for locals and a connection to a great network of trails on Forest Service land that connect to the major trails system in Rim Country.
“This is a very exciting project and I think it’ll be a big draw for Payson,” said Councilor Su Connell.
However, the council also scaled back much more ambitious plans it once had for developing the site. The town gained ownership of the archeologically rich site as part of a complicated land exchange between the Forest Service and private owners who intended to develop the land in the area. The private owners didn’t want to have to deal with the potentially expensive demands of managing an archeological site and turned it over to the town. The town’s original plan would have reconstructed and excavated the ruins and provided illustrations and explanations.
However, the new plan calls for leaving the site in its current condition, with the exception of constructing a signed trail, removing some obscuring trees and brush and perhaps some minor clearing of dirt to make the faint outlines of some of the rooms more clear.
“The new plan is less expensive, less invasive and at the same time provides a better experience for visitors,” said Forest Service Archeologist Scott Wood, who is helping direct the project in cooperation with the town.
“So if the T-Rex doesn’t bit you in the ankle, you can’t dig him up,” quipped Mayor Kenny Evans.
Mary McMullen, the town’s trails director who doggedly pursued the state Heritage Fund grant financed through lottery money, explained “the original plan focused on excavations, big things happening on the site. The revised version has minimal excavation and less interpretation.”
People lived in the 20-room village for perhaps 400 years, before abandoning it mysteriously in the 1200s. They hunted and gathered the natural resources of the area and practiced dry farming, diverting rainfall onto fields of corn, bean and squash.
Archeologists have for decades kept up a lively debate about the relationship of the people who built scattered settlements throughout Rim Country to other, better studied cultures. The people of the Rim Country, now considered part of the Central Arizona Tradition, lived astride major trade routes and harvested a seasonal bounty of different natural foods. However, they never built the large settlements typical in the Verde Valley and the Phoenix area, perhaps reflecting the shorter growing season and thin, rocky soil.
Archeologists have found much evidence of cultural mixing in the Rim Country — or at least the borrowing of ideas from groups to the north and the south. Some archeologists have argued that the shift from scattered settlements to larger, hilltop, fortified settlements after about 1100 AD indicates a period of rising warfare and insecurity.
In any case, after centuries of living in the Payson area, the people abandoned most of their settlements in the 1200s, nearly a century before the ultimate collapse and abandonment of the core Hohokam settlements in the Phoenix area.
The town hopes to offer visitors a glimpse of that ancient and mysterious history through having a well-developed, protected a ruins site along an easy, 1.5-mile-long trail suitable for hikers, riders and mountain bikers.
However, the town’s current financial crisis dominated the discussion, with council members questioning Parks and Recreation Director Rick Manchester to make sure the town could use as much volunteer labor as possible to provide the $60,000 match.
Manchester indicated the town has 18 months to start using the state money and up to three years to finish the project. The grant application included about $10,000 worth of volunteer labor, which means the town’s contribution could drop to about $50,000 in cash, equipment and materials. The town hopes that donations of materials like bike racks could reduce the cash outlay to as low as $25,000.
However, the council clearly worried about committing even that amount, given the current budget uncertainty.
Therefore, the council directed the town staff to accept the grant but not draw any of the state funds for the next 18 months. In the meantime, the town has already put out a call for volunteers and donations — hoping to count all that against the local match.