Fossil Creek Plan Has Serious Flaw

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The Forest Service wants to protect Fossil Creek without locking out the public. The latest plan comes close, but fails in a crucial respect.

We applaud the effort — but question the details.

Certainly, we must protect the water quality and wildlife. But we urge the Forest Service to allow as much public access as possible, without damaging that precious environment.

The plan on the table would ban cars in the canyon from May to September. Instead, people would have to pay maybe $5 to $10 each to ride a shuttle bus throughout that five-month period to reach trails, swimming and fishing holes. Moreover, the plan limits daily visitors to maybe 700 to 1,200. That makes sense — on the crowded weekends.

However, we see no justification for such a restriction on weekdays when use is light, even during the summer.

Last summer, weekend use peaked at about 1,200 a day and averaged about 650 a day. However, only 100 to 150 people a day ventured into the canyon during the week.

Clearly, the weekend crowds have gotten out of control, as evidenced by the illegal, untended campfires, drifts of litter and lack of bathroom facilities for people splashing about all day in the pristine, spring-fed, travertine creek.

But that does not equate to forcing people to use the shuttles during the week when use remains light. Most local residents long ago learned to avoid the canyon on the crowded weekends.

Forest Service officials say nothing’s been decided yet. They think they may need to offer all-week service to attract a private concessionaire to run the shuttle service.

We understand the logic — but we object to the conclusion.

The plan should allow as much public access as possible without endangering the creek. Weekday use poses no threat — and will help build support in the community most eager to protect this remarkable place.

Moreover, the Forest Service planners must also make sure that people who love the creek can purchase annual passes to allow open-ended use of the shuttle system and make it affordable for families with children to get down into the canyon. Hopefully, the existing Tonto Pass will allow access so locals won’t have to buy two or three different passes to enjoy the forest in their back yards.

So while we support any plan that will help protect the creek from trash, fires and pollution — we hope the Forest Service will not slam the door on the fingers of the locals.

Good news for schools

We interrupt this beating for a bit of good news. That sums up this week’s Payson Unified School Board meeting, as the black-and-blue board members listened to a wonderful report on the success of a program to pull troubled students back from the academic brink.

This year, the number of third-graders in the district reading below grade level dropped by 57 percent.

District administrators said the striking improvement stems in part from the use of a federal stimulus grant that gave the district the resources to track student progress carefully enough to catch reading problems early.

Two years into the Response to Intervention (RTI) program, the number of first-, second- and third-graders unable to read at grade level has dropped sharply and scores on tests measuring reading comprehension and oral fluency have risen anywhere from 20 percent to 45 percent over the last year in those three grades.

The district used maybe $30,000 in federal stimulus funding to set up the monitoring system, which warns teachers when students falter. The elementary schools then made sure those students received extra instruction — sometimes one-on-one — to make sure they catch up.

The results remain preliminary. We don’t know whether the gains will persist. However, some studies suggest that if students don’t read well by the time they finish third grade, they’re likely to face academic problems in the years ahead — including a far higher dropout rate.

Unfortunately, the federal stimulus funding will run out this year. That means the district will have to scrounge the seat cushions of its own tattered budget to find the spare change it will take to keep this program going next year.

However, we applaud the teachers and administrators who have implemented what looks like a successful program, despite the budget carnage of the past two years.

The report provided a breather in this unending stream of bad news and tough choices, including the closure of Frontier Elementary School, the worrisome rise in class sizes at the elementary level, teacher layoffs and disruptive administrative shuffles.

But the success of this modest but common sense intervention holds a vital lesson for all of us, as we struggle to make our schools worthy of our children.

We must remain focused on the students and on the classroom. That’s where it matters.

Everything else is window dressing.

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