Forest Service Rules Just A Waste Of Wood

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Now, we don’t mean to sound ungrateful. Lord knows, we don’t want to fall into the category of a fella whose wife buys him a nice new Jeep and then complains that it does not have leather seats.

Still, as we paused this week to choke on the smoke from burning piles of debris off Houston Mesa Road, we couldn’t help but lament the waste of all that perfectly good firewood.

Mind you, we’re awfully grateful for the millions of dollars the Tonto National Forest has spent thinning fire break buffer zones around almost all of the endangered communities in Rim Country. The Payson Ranger District has done a marvelous job of getting those projects ready then jumping on every possible source of funding to hire thinning crews. Those buffer zones may well save the community from destruction should the next Wallow Fire come roaring at us out of the dangerously overgrown forests of Rim Country.

Still, we also agree with the indignant complaint of residents this week who were dismayed to see all of that oak and juniper set to the torch.

The slash piles left by the thinning crews have been sitting out there for months. The Forest Service does allow people who purchase a permit to trudge out to the piles and haul armloads of wood back to the road. But rangers have also threatened to arrest people who try to get wood without a permit.

That’s a waste — a waste of wood and a waste of good will.

Instead, we think the Forest Service should make every possible effort to let locals gather up as much firewood from those slash piles as possible. The Forest Service should advertise the locations of the piles and then host a firewood day so residents can take their quads, pickups and Jeeps out to the piles to haul off everything they can before the contractors set fire to what remains.

Residents struggling to pay their extortionist propane bills would get a welcome break. The Forest Service would earn the local love it so sorely needs.

And all of us would have to choke down less smoke when it comes time to burn the wood that’s left behind.

Don’t get us wrong: We appreciate the shiny new fire break. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also dream of leather seats.

Budget alligators await school board

The Payson school board this week stood on the banks of a mud-wallow full of budgetary alligators and grimaced. And who can blame them — given the past two years of budget trauma that have already hurt our children’s futures.

Outgoing Superintendent Casey O’Brien asked the board to help him set budget priorities. He noted that the district this year lost another 61 students, which will cost at least $240,000 in state funding. Moreover, the district seems likely to lose federal money with the end of economic stimulus measures.

O’Brien’s budget outlook has darkened as a result of the hostile reception many legislators have given to Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget plan. Gov. Brewer has proposed spending much of the projected surplus in excess of $670 million on K-12 schools, but many lawmakers would rather bank the projected surplus.

We hope the Legislature agrees to invest in our faltering schools, which have seen funding return to 2006 levels.

However, it certainly makes sense for the Payson school board to prepare for the worst — given recent history. So the board members said their top priority remains ensuring that elementary school students master the basic skills essential to their success.

That makes sense. Studies show that students who can’t read fluently by the third grade never catch up. Moreover, the state’s new grading system puts a huge weight on the skills of those elementary school students.

Of course, it’s hard to square this year’s stated priorities with last year’s actual budget cuts. The school board last year shut down top-performing Frontier Elementary School and boosted elementary school class sizes by about 25 percent to close the budget gap. Yet studies show that small class sizes offer substantial benefits — especially in those crucial elementary school years.

But setting that contradiction aside, we hope the board won’t let the current, obsessive, potentially damaging focus on test scores in reading and mathematics dominate their thinking. Politicians trying to claim credit have already imposed far too many crippling restrictions based on standardized testing. That state and federal focus has crowded out electives that ignite the passion and creativity of students and teachers alike, including music, art, science electives and cutting edge vocational classes.

Certainly, we share the school board’s shudder when asked to look down into that mud pit of budget alligators for yet another year.

Nonetheless, we hope that this time they’ll get creative before they jump in and commence to thrash about.

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