Hunger Has Returned

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Like the gaunt Ghost of Christmas Past, we must set a place at our holiday tables once again for fear and want — and for our hungry neighbors.

Rim Country Food Banks report a heartbreaking surge in the need for help in October and November, as the tourists clear out and folks who have been hanging on through this interminable downturn face another holiday season with bare cupboards.

Once again, many in this community have rallied. In the first week of November, St. Vincent de Paul’s food bank handed out food baskets to a staggering 676 people, which comes on top of the 2,000 people they helped in October. Nearby, the Community Presbyterian Church served 350 people in October — twice as many as last year. The good-hearted, community-spirited people at the food banks have once more put out the alarm.

Already, many people have responded. The people who organized last year’s successful food drive say they’ll launch a new Payson Area Food Drive today. Last year, a generous community donated an extra $20,000 in cash and 50,000 pounds of food, on top of what the various charities and food banks normally raise. Unfortunately, the demand for food by those Rim Country families struggling to hold on in the face of a 10 percent unemployment rate has now reached a daunting 33,000 pounds monthly.

We know that this community will respond, as you all did last year. We cannot count on the federal government or the state government or the town government now — they’re all struggling with their own deficits.

But we can still count on our neighbors.

That’s why we love this place the most. Not the scenery, not the high-scudding clouds, not the just-right amount of snow, not the whistling of wind in the pine needles. No, mostly we love living in a place with such a generous heart. So let us go once more into the breech, dear friends.

Our neighbors need us.

Rim Country held hostage

Sometimes, it seems we’ve been kidnapped and held hostage by a giant with a serious obsessive-compulsive disorder.

At least, that’s one way to describe the relationship between folks who live in Rim Country and the U.S. Forest Service, which owns most of the land.

One need look no further than the inexplicable decision of the Forest Service to indefinitely postpone approval of emergency escape routes for fire-menaced communities with only one road in and out.

Gila County has been laboring for years to get the Forest Service to consider the plight of people living in places like Beaver Valley, Geronimo Estates, Bonita Creek and other subdivisions surrounded by badly overgrown, publicly owned forest. We had one close call a year ago, when a fire apparently triggered by a careless camper bore down on Beaver Valley — forcing a hasty evacuation on the single, dirt-road exit.

Residents of Beaver Valley had been trying in vain for years to get the Forest Service to approve a short, backdoor route to provide a second entry to Houston Mesa Road. Such a back door could provide an alternative if a fast-moving fire blocked the front door or could increase the speed with which residents could evacuate in a crisis.

On the face of it, the request seems utterly simple.

All the Forest Service has to do is re-open a now-closed dirt track and give Gila County permission to widen and improve it for a couple hundred feet.

No can do, said the Tonto National Forest.

Turns out, the request to provide back door routes for a slew of trapped communities got caught up in the overhaul of the whole 4,000-mile-long network of dirt roads in the Tonto National Forest. We urgently need sensible restrictions on irresponsible off-road driving. But the Tonto National Forest decided to complete that massive overhaul before considering the much smaller, but potentially life-saving, matter of emergency escape routes for one-exit settlements.

So now the Travel Management Plan is more than a year overdue and we’re no closer to providing those back-door escapes for communities menaced by the consequences of a century of fuel buildup in a fire-prone forest.

Now, we don’t mean to pile on. The Forest Service has a formidable challenge, managing such vast tracts of lands in a country that produces a bumper crop of lawyers and feuding interest groups. Moreover, Gila County bears a large measure of the blame for approving subdivisions without safe access. However, we simply don’t understand the priority system that gambles so heedlessly with the lives of people menaced by the a deadly danger created by Forest Service policies.

Kind of like having the house catch fire, only to discover your kidnapper won’t let you leave until he meticulously straightens out every last salad fork in the silverware drawer.

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