New Gcc Leadership Offers Fresh Hope

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The Gila Community College board has a new president. Hopefully, that will usher in new opportunities.

Outgoing president Bob Ashford last week surprised everyone, including Larry Stephenson, when he nominated Stephenson as the new board president.

Ashford did not explain why he gave up the president’s gavel, which he has wielded with fierce energy for six years. Reportedly, he has faced some health concerns that may have made it difficult to continue putting in long hours serving the college.

Now, we have in this space expressed our frustrations with Ashford’s sometimes heavy-handed style as board president. He seemed far too willing to dictate the board’s agenda and far too reluctant to question the terms of GCC’s contract with Eastern Arizona College.

But that does not diminish our respect for his long, unpaid, dedicated service to GCC and its students.

Still, we hope Ashford’s public-spirited determination to let Stephenson take over the president’s gavel will ultimately benefit the students. We trust Stephenson will help forge a joint effort that embraces all of the board members to respond to the crucial challenges GCC faces.

The college must move as quickly as possible toward independence — and in the process regain some of the control it has sacrificed to Eastern Arizona College through the contract that provides necessary administrative and academic credentials and service.

Moreover, we hope the board will focus on developing a close partnership with the Rim Country Educational Alliance, charged with building a 6,000-student, four-year university right next door. GCC and the Alliance have a precious opportunity to integrate their curriculums and resources to the great benefit of students, providing a model for a high-quality, low-cost education that can be applied statewide. Moreover, the Alliance’s emphasis on an innovative public-private partnerships should offer GCC marvelous opportunities to provide vocational training and credentialing.

So Stephenson assumes his duties at a critical moment, with fresh reason to hope that the board can bridge its differences and work together for the good of the students.

Rim’s fate hinges on project

Rim Country leaders last week got a preview of the most important forest project in a generation — the 4-Forest Restoration Initiative (4-FRI).

The Forest Service hopes shortly to award a historic, 10-year contract to thin 300,000 acres of forest, including an admittedly paltry 2,000 acres in Rim Country.

This innovative effort to use a resurrected timber industry to thin thickets of fire-prone trees offers the first hope in years the Forest Service may make real progress in saving Rim Country from the threat of wildfires.

The Payson Ranger District has spent millions of dollars in the past five years using hand-thinning and controlled burns to thin a 50,000-acre buffer zone around Pine, Strawberry, Payson and other Rim communities.

Clearly, the Forest Service can’t afford to use that approach to thin the millions of acres that a century of mismanagement has turned into one vast crown fire waiting to happen.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans properly urged the Forest Service to make thinning the watershed of the Blue Ridge Reservoir a top priority. A crown fire on that small, steep watershed could easily cause mud flows that could drastically reduce the capacity of the Blue Ridge Reservoir, blighting the future of Rim Country even before we complete the Blue Ridge pipeline.

Unfortunately for us, most of the acres in the first round of contracts are centered on Flagstaff — which faces a grave danger from wildfires. It makes sense to start near those population centers, where the timber companies can harvest more profitable trees and protect more people and structures.

Mind you, the project remains fraught with uncertainties. The Forest Service needs to award much longer-term contracts to provide the guarantees the timber companies will need if they’re expected to invest heavily in mills and power plants that can make profitable use of those dangerously overstocked small trees.

Moreover, the initial contracts will test the consensus on the need to protect the largest trees that finally brought together loggers and environmentalists.

The Forest Service project managers who made their pitch in Payson said they want to create a healthy, diverse forest — which may mean cutting trees larger than 16 inches in diameter in some areas. Hopefully, they will design timber sales that achieve that goal — and protect the credibility of the process. But even with thickets of issues yet to cut through, the steady progress represents nothing but good news for Rim Country.

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