Keep Gila County Intact On Redistricting Maps

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The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commit-tee faced some challenges in drawing new congressional and state legislative district lines.

But we don’t think much of the outcome — at least when it comes to the draft maps featured at this week’s public input meeting in Payson.

Driven by a perceived need above all else to avoid parceling out minority voters among different districts, the commission instead wants to dismember Gila County.

Currently, Gila County remains intact in largely rural congressional and legislative districts. Congressional District One is dominated by Flagstaff, but includes most of eastern Arizona. State Legislative District 5 brings together rural Gila, Graham and Greenlee counties — together with the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

We hope the commission will consider substantial changes in the draft maps — especially when it comes to hacking up Gila County and spreading it around.

If you wonder whether it matters — just think back to the role Sen. Sylvia Allen played in helping Payson work toward establishing a college campus and in opening the door to independence for Gila Community College. Do you think she would have invested such effort if her district included only a fragment of the county?

As near as we can tell, an effort to create a Native American district to please the U.S. Justice Department drove the dismemberment of Gila County. Specifically, the commission decided to shift the San Carlos Apache Reservation into the same district as the vast Navajo Reservation to prevent the Native American percentage of that district from falling below 59 percent.

As a result, the state legislative map distributes the pieces of Gila County among three different districts. Most of northern Gila County would end up in a district dominated by Flagstaff. Southern Gila County would end up lost in a mostly Navajo district. Meanwhile, a chunk of the Tonto Basin ends up pasted onto a suburban Pinal County District, for reasons no one seems able to explain.

On the Congressional side, northern Gila County would end up in a district that includes Prescott, but would be dominated by cities on the banks of the Colorado River.

Equally frustrating, the overriding effort to create districts dominated by either Hispanic or Native American voters to placate the Justice Department has blunted the effort to create truly competitive districts. So we hope that the commission will go back to the drawing board and work harder to keep Gila County intact.

Odds are Don’s crew just saved your home

Don Nunley just saved your house. Well, all right. That’s probably overstatement. But the Payson Ranger District’s fire management officer and his team have spent the past decade dramatically reducing the odds that a wildfire will gobble up Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Star Valley, Christopher Creek, Whispering Pines and a host of other Rim Country communities.

Moreover, they demonstrated that agencies like the U.S. Forest Service can protect the environment and still do their jobs, if they know how to work the system.

A decade ago, a series of wildfires awoke the Tonto National Forest to the danger posed by thickets of spindly trees that dominated millions of acres. This overgrown, drought-plagued forest proved vulnerable to crown fires, which can leap from treetop to treetop faster than a man can run, and incinerate whole communities in an hour.

So in 2001, the District’s fire experts decided to clear the bureaucratic path to a massive thinning effort by starting work on the environmental studies required by federal law on some 260,000 acres. They also worked out open-ended contracts with private companies to do the thinning work.

The studies led them to come up with the guidelines necessary to create buffer zones around every forest community in Rim Country. Basically, they want to create areas relatively clear of brush where the trees stand far enough apart to frustrate the advance of a crown fire.

They did the studies and inched forward with the actual thinning, using whatever money they could scrounge.

Then, three years ago, the district got $3 million in federal stimulus money, mostly because Nunley’s crew had finished the environmental assessments and had contracts ready to go. This year, they scored another $1.1 million in year-end Forest Service money that other forest districts hadn’t gotten organized quickly enough to spend.

As a result, crews can now return to areas thinned five years ago to cut back the brush that has re-grown.

Make no mistake, we’re doomed without such persistent, shrewd, far-sighted efforts by the Payson Ranger District. If you want proof, look no further than this summer’s Wallow Fire. The largest crown fire in state history would have swallowed up Alpine and Greer but for a thinned buffer zone on the outskirts of those communities.

So the next time you encounter a forest ranger, you might suggest they say ‘hey’ to Don and the boys — and thank them for saving your house.

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