Tonto Forest Wins Jackpot

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The Tonto National Forest filled its inside straight and we get to cash in our chips in the form of another reduction in the grave fire danger facing residents of Rim Country.

The Payson Ranger District proved the value of learning the tells of the other players sitting at the table, with its adroit strategy of doing the groundwork on thousands of acres of thinning projects in hopes of a pat hand.

So this week the Tonto became the only forest in the Southwest to get a federal stimulus grant for thinning projects, which will protect some 13 communities.

Granted, decades of mismanagement of the forest created the dire need for these thinning projects. For decades, forest managers actively promoted policies that mutated a fire-resistant forest with 100 trees per acre into a 1,000-tree-per-acre tinderbox.

Fortunately, the foresters now in charge have demonstrated a heartening sense of urgency in creating defensible buffer zones around towns and isolated housing developments scattered across millions of acres of dreadfully overgrown forests.

The most recent $3.1-million grant will thin some 8,000 acres. That includes work to re-thin 5,000 acres on the outskirts of Pine and Payson and more costly efforts to make the first cut on about 3,000 acres on overgrown land that poses a dire threat to Christopher Creek and several other forest-engulfed settlements.

Two wet winters have mitigated the decade-long drought that had made the Rim Country the most fire-menaced area in the country. Thankfully, work on this final 8,000 acres will complete a potentially life-saving buffer around almost all of the forest settlements.

Of course, forest managers now face the much tougher problem of restoring millions of acres of forest to health. Ultimately, our fate depends on finding a way to reduce tree densities on lands so vast it can’t be done by hand.

That’s why we’re glad that Rim Country leaders like Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin and others continue to work on reinventing the timber industry to turn a profit on the thickets of small trees, including retooled mills and biofuel plants.

Perhaps someday Payson will have a new job base centered on such power plants and mills that can turn a profits for decades by thinning the forests on an epic scale.

That’s why we hope Tonto Forest will demonstrate the same poker smarts in confronting that challenge it has on the heroic effort to create these vital fire breaks.

Should we tear the plan down?

Let’s say you’ve been building your dream house on a view lot with river frontage for years. Unfortunately, all those add-ons, balconies and turrets have produced a funky hodge-podge, with the master bedroom way too small and a rooftop deck with no stairway.

Then you get a termite infestation. Should you tear it down and start over — or just do a major remodel?

That’s the metaphorical question facing the Payson Town Council as it inspects the termite-infested master plans lovingly constructed by previous councils.

Payson remains that dream house with panoramic views — but the economic slump has revealed the structural flaws in some of those ambitious plans.

The vision remains sound — a beautiful, architecturally distinctive forest town with perhaps 38,000 residents, a secure water supply, a thriving convention center and rodeo grounds, a bedrock retirement community, a balanced workforce, successful schools, a regional airport, booming tourism, world-class parks and trails, a booming Main Street — and hopefully a college campus and a small-tree timber industry.

That’s all doable in the next 30 years, while still protecting the scenic, small-town feel that makes us love this place so passionately right now. But the best route from here to there now seems like a rutted dirt track.

For example, most of the capital projects originally planned for this year have dropped into fiscal limbo, unhinging the existing timetable. The slowdown has sharpened questions about whether the town can ever generate the business to turn a mile-long-straggle of businesses on Main Street into downtown Jerome and whether the Event Center of our current dreams could bring in enough business to justify its cost anytime soon.

The council must grapple with these tough questions in the next week and come up with a new draft plan. Then we’ll all get a chance to make our suggestions at the planned March 26 public meeting.

Obviously, the councilors must build on the hard work of previous councils and hundreds of citizens — we can’t afford a teardown every time we change council majorities. On the other hand, it’s time to plan realistically.

But take heart: Even if they never do build a stairway to the deck with a view, we will benefit from that foundational rule of real estate: Location, location, location.

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