Pipeline Project Logjam Broken

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline will not hurt any endangered species.

“I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s in the mail,” USFWS Southwestern Regional Spokesman Jeff Humphrey said on Wednesday.

Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Angie Elam confirmed USFWS biologists had concurred with the Tonto National Forest biologist who concluded the $35 million pipeline buried in Houston Mesa Road won’t inflict any significant damage on either the Chiricahua leopard frog or the Mexican spotted owl endangered species that occur nearby.

“This is good news,” said Elam. “The rest is just editing and cleanup.”

In the meantime, Elam said the Payson Ranger District is pushing to accelerate the process of selling the Rim Country Educational Alliance Separate Legal Entity (SLE) some 260 acres it wants for a college campus.

The district has sought direction from Forest Service officials in Washington that would allow the district to sell the land directly to the Alliance, instead of seeking competing bids or requiring the Alliance to trade other land for the parcel it wants.

In the meantime, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s quick action on the pipeline environmental assessment has broken a logjam that had stalled the project for nearly a year.

Tonto National Forest can now draft a “decision” letter, which triggers a 45-day appeal period to complete work on the environmental assessment, which found no significant impacts on the stream, wildlife or archaeological sites.

The decision removes the last significant hurdle to construction of the pipeline, which will double Payson’s long-term water supply. Payson Mayor Kenny Evans had linked approval of the pipeline’s environmental assessment to plans to build a 6,000-student college campus in Payson.

Payson hopes to complete the pipeline by 2015.

The town’s environmental consultants had completed a draft of the environmental assessment a year ago, but roughly 10 rounds of editing required by the Forest Service biologists had stalled final approval for 10 months.

Elam said Payson must still get construction permits for the pipeline, which requires the submission to the Forest Service of the basic contracts and specifications.

“The construction permit requires the construction documents, so we need to work to get that done. But we’re leaving the EA (environmental assessment) process and moving into the technical engineering process,” said Elam. “It’s a big project — a significant engineering process — so it’s going to take a lot of doing.”

Meanwhile, back on the college land sale front, Elam said she’s waiting for word from Forest Service legal experts on the process the district must follow in selling the 260 acres to Payson.

A decade ago Congress passed Public Law 106, which authorized the Forest Service to sell 10 different tracts of land all over the country and use the money from the sale to build or improve needed facilities. The Forest Service has sold off nine parcels, leaving only the 260 acres adjacent to the Payson Ranger Station. The law will allow the Forest Service to sell the land to a single bidder, based on independent appraisals of its value.

The Payson Ranger District now wants to sell 260 acres to the Educational Alliance, then use the money to build a new ranger district and administrative center on the remaining 40 acres. The money from the sale would also pay for a new, 40-acre site for the district’s firefighting operations — including a helipad.

“Everyone at the regional office and the national office understands the motivation to move the sale as quickly as possible,” said Elam.

Once the Forest Service lawyers lay out the process for a direct sale, the Forest Service can do an environmental assessment of the site, which basically amounts to an inventory of resources on the land — including endangered and threatened wildlife and things like archaeological sites.

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