After a nearly one-year delay, the Tonto National Forest abruptly cleared a vexing logjam this week by forwarding to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service an environmental assessment of Payson’s $34-million Blue Ridge pipeline project.
The assessment had been stalled by a series of questions raised by Tonto National Forest biologists about the possible impact on endangered species.
However, following complaints from the town and media coverage of the impasse, Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Angie Elam intervened to get the project moving again, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
“I’d love to give the coverage and the letters the credit,” said Evans, “but the fact remains that we’ve done everything we could think of without nudging the process forward until we found a district ranger who would roll up her sleeves and get it done. I think that caused a change of heart in the Forest Service that maybe we ought to get this done together.”
Evans said Elam this week focused on answering key questions, forwarding the report to the Fish and Wildlife Service and then following up with the Fish and Wildlife Service biologists to make the consultation a priority.
The Tonto National Forest’s decision to accept the biological assessment and forward it for comment to the Fish and Wildlife Service came at the last possible minute to perhaps salvage the current timetable for building the pipeline — and the first phase of an ultimately 6,000-student Arizona State University campus in town.
Forest Service biologists had asked for repeated revisions of the biological assessment of the likely impact on endangered and threatened species along the 15-mile pipeline, which will be buried alongside Houston Mesa Road and will cross the East Verde River three times.
Most of the questions focused on two endangered species not actually found in the creek — the Chiricahua Leopard Frog and the Mexican Spotted Owl. Both species occur no closer than a mile from the East Verde, which hasn’t been listed as critical habitat for either species.
The Forest Service biologist also raised questions about the potential impact on the native Headwater Chub, which occurs in the creek but isn’t actually on the federal endangered species list.
The chub is considered a “candidate” for eventual inclusion on the official list, but even the Forest Service biologist has conceded that the presence of non-native trout and crayfish in the East Verde means that the creek will probably not ever become a refuge for the dwindling native fish.
However, the Forest Service this week concluded that the outstanding questions about the likely impact of the project on those species weren’t serious enough to continue to hold up submission of the biological assessment to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency official charged with protecting endangered species.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has a month to determine whether it concurs with the Forest Service biologists, who concluded the project will not adversely affect the three key species. Town officials hope the Fish and Wildlife Service will not raise any objections that will cause further delays, since the two officially listed endangered species don’t occur along the creek.
The Forest Service’s action this week will lift the hold Mayor Evans had put on planning for both the pipeline and for the Payson campus.
Evans said he had put planning for the college on hold because he had vowed not to push through the college until the town had a guaranteed water supply from the Blue Ridge pipeline, which will more than double the town’s long-term, sustainable water supply.
If the Fish and Wildlife Service does clear the project in the next month, the college will remain on course for signing of the final agreement with Arizona State University in December and the start of construction in the spring of next year.
Evans said he wasn’t sure precisely how the Forest Service resolved the outstanding questions, after 10 rounds of editing and repeated edits by the consultants the town paid more than $500,000 to prepare the report.
The town also paid the Forest Service an additional $169,000 to hire enough people to review the report and make a contract deadline that required the Forest Service to complete the report by last December.
“All I know is that at this point our answers were considered sufficient,” said Evans.