Rim Country’s freshman Congressman dropped by Payson on Monday for a crash course on local issues, including forest restoration, the Blue Ridge pipeline and Payson’s effort to build a water pipeline and a college campus on federal land.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Flagstaff) landed slots on the Natural Resources and Government Oversight committees, potentially crucial assignments in a district that consists of mostly federal land.
During a stopover in Payson en route to a sequence of five town halls in a district larger than many states, Gosar met with Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, County Supervisor Tommie Martin and other top officials from both town and county government.
“I’m trying to get up to speed on the issues,” said Gosar, a Flagstaff dentist who said he is a “workaholic” living in his Washington office.
“Right now,” he continued, “what we’re doing isn’t working. We need to find out what’s at fault and what’s not working. It’s not about what we don’t do — it’s about what we need to do. The federal government is here to assist, it’s not to dictate to us.”
Gosar campaigned on a conservative platform calling for the repeal of recent health care reforms, deep spending cuts, big tax cuts, elimination of regulations and elimination of earmarks.
On Monday, he received an information-crammed briefing on the plight of an area with a stalled economy and high unemployment in which every new initiative depends on the reaction of the U.S. Forest Service.
Afterward, he remained vague on the details of some of the crucial local issues on which his predecessor had played a leading role, but seemed determined to get involved — between the whirl of committee meetings and hearings.
“I think the American people asked us to get down to the business of Main Street,” said Gosar.
He said Congress now has a huge group of freshmen lawmakers, a third of which have no experience in elected office.
“I like what I’ve been seeing,” he said. “We’ve been delayed a little bit by the tragedy in Tucson, so now we’ve got to get to work.”
As one example of topics discussed on a crowded agenda, Payson officials told Gosar that they need helping making sure the Forest Service moves quickly to sell a 300-acre parcel on which the town hopes to build a college campus.
“Our biggest and highest priority for the federal government is to keep them out of the way,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans after the meeting.
“I think he gets it in terms of what life is like when you’re an island in the middle of a federal forest.”
Payson hopes to snag federal grants, low-cost loans and land sales by the federal government. Key issues on which the town hopes for federal help includes paying the salaries of firefighters for the new fire station, financing the Blue Ridge pipeline, expanding the airport and building an ASU campus.
Congress designated the 300-acre parcel for sale nearly a decade ago, but it could still take the Forest Service another year or more to actually clear the parcel for sale. The delay threatened to derail the project, until the group of investors who have pledged money for the project agreed to buy a 60-acre parcel of private land for the first phase of what could become a 6,000-student campus.
Gosar said afterward that he still didn’t know all the details of the project.
He also said he was working to understand the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4-FRI), a proposal by a coalition of foresters, environmentalists and timber interests to convince the Forest Service to guarantee a wood supply and a long-term contract to timber companies willing to invest in new mills that could handle the small diameter trees experts say are choking the forest.
Again, Gosar said he didn’t yet know the details of the plan, but cited the impact of the Shultz Fire near Flagstaff as evidence of the need for a new approach. The thick stand of timber that burned last summer was one of the tracts earmarked for thinning in the 4-FRI. Heavy rains after the fire rushed off the denuded slopes and caused extensive flooding in Flagstaff.
“This hands-off approach to the forest — not making a decision. That’s inappropriate,” said Gosar.