Pine-Strawberry Board: Should We Laugh Or Cry?


Shakespeare would have loved the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District. Lately, the water district board seems bent on offering itself up as an illustration of the “tragic flaw” — with certain elements of low comedy.

And it’s all such a waste — although fascinating to watch. Consider the heroic accomplishments of the board in the past two years.

A decade of haphazard and irresponsible management by Brooke Utilities had blighted the whole community. Brooke’s refusal to make any investment in increasing water supplies in return for its monopoly resulted in a perpetual building moratorium. After years of argument and division, the water district bought out Brooke and set about to secure the community’s future.

The board succeeded brilliantly, doubling the community’s water supply with the purchase of a series of existing wells. Marvelous. Farsighted. Heroic.

So why do some board members seem determined to turn its meetings into a farce out of ego and a thin-skinned response to irritating — but fact-based — criticism?

The controversy centers on Sam Schwalm and a small group of gadfly skeptics and critics that have bedeviled the board by double checking all the numbers — and raising questions about its policies.

Admittedly, the criticisms have become annoyingly persistent. But they’re almost always based on research and legitimate questions — whether it’s the odd backdating of an otherwise sensible rate increase or the weird decision to break a single contract into little bits in an apparent effort to evade state law requiring competitive bidding.

A few weeks ago, the simmering tensions resulted in an unseemly outburst by several board members directed at Schwalm and his group. Last week, board chairman Gary Lovetro unwisely let two members of the public make potentially slanderous statements directed at Schwalm and allowed the two speakers to exceed the board’s normal time limits on such non-agendized comments.

Shakespeare’s genius lay partly in his understanding that the most heart-rending tragedies stem from a hero’s virtues gone awry — Hamlet’s immobilizing introspection, Romeo’s impulsive passion, Othello’s obsessive love, Lear’s love of his family. Moreover, Shakespeare realized that tragedy and comedy are siblings — adopting different attitudes toward terrible blunders.

Unfortunately, the Pine Strawberry water board has gotten so strange, prickly and defensive lately that we can’t figure out whether to laugh or cry.

Still no respect from the Forest Service

Asked how he liked being president, Abraham Lincoln famously replied: “You have heard the story haven’t you, about the man as he was ridden out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered, somebody asked him how he liked it, and his reply was if it was not for the honor of the thing, he would much rather walk.”

That kind of sums up Rim Country’s relationship with the Forest Service.

The most recent case-in-point is the pre-emptory decision to shut down Fossil Creek Road for a year. Without consulting any of the local businesses and agencies affected, the Forest Service last week said it would close the road down into Fossil Creek from now until April 2013.

Since Fossil Creek will likely draw 60,000 visitors this year, the high-handed decision could have a big impact on the region’s struggling tourist economy. We understand the underlying goal: To protect a stream that has in recent years become a refuge for some endangered species.

Certainly, many of the weekend visitors from the Valley have done their best to trash the place just as word spreads that Fossil Creek offers a piece of summertime paradise just two hours drive from the nation’s fifth largest city. Clearly, the Forest Service had to take decisive action to protect this riparian treasure.

That’s why we had high hopes for the attempt to fashion a long-term plan to protect the creek while still allowing recreational uses. Planners talked about shuttle services or weekend limits on the cars allowed down into the canyon. Those ideas make a lot of sense, so long as the Forest Service also takes into account the desires of local residents to visit the creek during the weekdays when over-usage doesn’t pose a problem.

But without any discussion with residents who will be hard-hit by the result, the Forest Service elected to simply shut down road access to the creek from Strawberry, while leaving access open from the Camp Verde side.

The decision leaves open the Fossil Creek Trail, which will no doubt force already overwhelmed search and rescue crews to spend more time helping flip-flop-wearing, beer-cooler-toting fools out of the canyon.

We hope the Forest Service will reconsider its decision, which Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce manager John Stanton aptly compared to using a sledge hammer to pound in a nail to hang a picture.

Once again, the Forest Service has mistaken its responsibility to protect public lands for actual ownership of those lands.


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