The sale of 256 acres for a university campus in Payson by the U.S. Forest Service took a giant step forward last week with the release of a long-awaited environmental assessment documenting huge financial advantages and minimal environmental impacts.
The sale of the land to the Rim Country Educational Alliance Separate Legal Entity (SLE) would provide the money for the U.S. Forest Service to dramatically improve facilities in Payson, but would have only fleeting and minimal impacts on wildlife, water, soils, views, air quality, noise levels and plants, the assessment found.
The only potential impact involves 19 sites where archaeologists found scatters of Native
American pottery or tools, including the remains of two stone shelters. The environmental assessment (EA) concluded that the Forest Service should consult with Native American tribes about how to mitigate the potential impact on these archaeological sites if the Forest Service sells the land. Members of the Hopi and White Mountain Apache Tribe both asked for a thorough study of possible archaeological sites on the property.
However, the rest of the report and the great majority of comments received from the public and affected agencies argued for a quick sale of the property, which would not only provide a huge economic boost to the region, but finance dramatic improvements in Forest Service facilities.
The Tonto National Forest posted the EA on its Web site to start a 30-day public comment period. If the comment period doesn’t raise any crucial new issues, the Forest Service will issue a decision on whether to approve the sale. That would trigger a 45-day appeals period. If all goes well, the Forest Service could transfer title to the land to the SLE in late spring of next year.
Arizona State University has reportedly agreed to go forward to build a 6,000-student campus in Payson with the completion of the EA and a firm Forest Service decision to proceed with a direct sale of the land to the SLE, according to sources close to the negotiations. Most of the other major issues have been settled.
The EA became a stumbling block when the investors who have offered to invest $400 million for the campus and related facilities balked at coming up with the roughly $375,000 price for the EA. However, a fund-raising campaign came up with the money to cover the bulk of the assessment costs.
The EA focused mostly on the benefits of the sale to the Payson Ranger District and the minimal environmental impacts.
The sale would provide the money to demolish and replace facilities outdated and too small to house district operations.
The current facilities occupy 30 acres of the 296-acre site and include six offices, a warehouse and 23 portable storage containers. The helicopter landing area crucial to firefighting and rescues lies next to the Payson Airport and requires the Forest Service to rent a modular office for $40,000 annually.
The overhaul would provide the Forest Service with 17,000 square feet of new office space, a visitor center, a 10,500-square-foot facility for firefighters, 4,000 square feet of permanent storage space, horse facilities and parking. The sale would also finance a new helicopter landing area on a 31-acre parcel near the county maintenance yard 4.5 miles east of Payson off Highway 260. That facility would include a five-acre core with a landing pad and a 7,000-square-foot office and firefighter bunkhouse, surrounded by a 30-acre buffer zone.
A number of Star Valley residents commenting on the draft plan expressed concern about traffic and aircraft noise. However, the EA concluded that the landing pad will generate at most four flights a day during things like nearby forest fires or rescue operations. It concluded that some residents may on occasion hear helicopters come and go, but that the effect should remain minimal.
The great majority of the comments expressed strong support for the sale and urged the Forest Service to make a decision as quickly as possible.
The EA included more than 60 anonymous comments from the public.
One resident said, “The Town of Payson needs quicker action. We have lived here 40 years and would like to see this sale completed. It seems that the Tonto NF headquarters in Phoenix forget about the people in the mountains. They concentrate on the lake and desert areas instead of all of the forests — perhaps the Tonto should be split up into two or more forests.”
Another said, “I strongly support the sale of Forest Service land to provide the proposed ASU campus and new Forest Service facilities; this is a win-win scenario; Payson will benefit economically and the Forest Service will get improved facilities. Be proactive and don’t delay; our town needs this; it will bring jobs to town; the site is more suited to development (surrounded by town) than Forest use”
Another comment was, “Build the project as soon as possible by selling the land as soon as possible; it needs to happen now. How can we expedite the process? I am disappointed the process is taking this long.”
However, some of the wary suspicion of the five-year effort to build a high-tech campus nestled among ponderosa pines also emerged in the comments.
“From my perspective, as a resident of Payson, it looks like a private group of investors is trying to grab the last pristine large block of land in Payson under the guise of a quasi-governmental agency, i.e. the Educational Alliance SLE,” commented one resident.
However, the Forest Service dismissed most of those comments as not relevant to the environmental impact of the sale or the construction of the new Forest Service facilities.
The 100-page assessment made short work of most of the potential environmental impacts.
The report concluded that impacts on lighting, air quality and noise levels would fade with the end of the building phase.
The site has no endangered plants and is covered with the kind of mix of ponderosas, pinon pines and junipers that sprawls across most of the Payson area. The closest the consultants could find to a “wetland” was a patch of grass and reeds apparently fed by runoff from the road.
The site also posed no difficulties with endangered species — or even “protected” species. The nearest habitat for listed species — like Chiricahua leopard frogs, goshawks or Mexican spotted owls lies miles away.
The only environmental impact likely to need a mitigation plan involves the scatters of pottery shards and fragmented evidence of Native American shelter.
The consultants located two “historic” roads and one “historic” phone tree line. They also located three “prehistoric habitation sites.” In addition, they documented 12 places listed as either “prehistoric rock features with artifact scatter” or simply “historic artifact scatter.” Some of these lie on the land the Forest Service would retain and some on the land it would sell.