Senator Jon Kyl’s political career came full circle on Friday, as Payson supporters gathered at The Rim Club to honor his long advocacy for Rim Country.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans pulled together about 60 community leaders to commemorate the career of the retiring four-term congressman and three-term senator, who has represented the region for the past 26 years.
“As a freshman congressman, he was the first member of his class to get a bill passed,” said Evans. “As it happens, it involved deeding Forest Service land for Payson High School. Since then, he’s been ranked as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.”
Kyl deflected the compliment with a joke, noting that singer Lady Gaga made that same list.
“Since 1986, I’ve always represented Payson,” said Kyl. “And I know that the federal government can be a difficult neighbor — with so many layers of bureaucracy. I apologize for that difficulty.”
But just to prove that the more things change, the more they stay the same — Evans also noted that Rim Country residents feel sometimes like they’re buried under a load of hay while the Forest Service turns away — as evidenced by the expensive, years-long struggle to convince the Forest Service to actually sell a 300-acre parcel for a university that Congress earmarked for sale 12 years ago.
Kyl promised to do “whatever else I can” to help the Rim Country Educational Alliance jump through all the federal hoops necessary to convince the Forest Service to sell the land as a direct sale based on an appraisal.
The Forest Service has required backers to pay for a $375,000 environmental assessment before it will even commit to the direct sale based on an independent appraisal, which compelled backers to launch a community fund-raising drive.
The Forest Service has used the land for a ranger station and a maintenance facility for its vehicles for years and the land has no known endangered species or major archaeological sites, but the expensive environmental assessment has nonetheless stalled sale of the property for nearly a year.
But the luncheon mostly focused on Kyl’s efforts on behalf of Rim Country over the years, especially his sponsorship of federal legislation that gave Payson the right to 3,000 acre-feet of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir, providing it can complete a $34 million pipeline to take the water from the end of a pipeline controlled by the Salt River Project.
Payson also has agreed to pay 27 percent of the costs of the SRP pipeline that brings the water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir to Washington Park, near the headwaters of the East Verde River. The project benefited from a $10 million federal stimulus grant and low-cost, long-term federal loans as well.
Kyl recalled his years as a lawyer representing the Salt River Project, and lauded the Valley water provider for its assistance in working out a series of landmark water agreements that helped divide up the flow of the Colorado, Salt, Gila and Verde rivers and settle major water rights claims by various Indian Nations — including the Tonto Apache.
Several top SRP officials attended the luncheon and presented Kyl with a framed photo of the Blue Ridge Reservoir and first and last pages of the landmark bill Kyl sponsored that made the joint agreement with Payson possible.
Kyl mostly avoided politics in his remarks, although he strongly supports Rep. Jeff Flake, now in a dead heat with former U.S Surgeon General Richard Carmona for Kyl’s seat.
Kyl lauded Rim Country’s newfound unity when it comes to projects like Blue Ridge and the university. In years past, he said, “this community was split about 18 ways and we had some very obstreperous people. What I see now is everyone pulling together. “
During a question and answer period Payson Tea Party vice president Shirley Dye, who is running for both the Northern Gila County Sanitary District and the Payson School Board, asked whether the federal government will turn over some 45 million acres of federal land, the hope behind Proposition 120 on the November ballot.
But Kyl said not only will the federal government not give the state the land it controls, but the state itself hasn’t sold the bulk of the land it gained control of when it became a state in 1912.
“That land has not been transferred. There’s no chunk of land the federal government still owes to Arizona. We’re not going to get any additional federal land.”
He said he has pushed for a law that would at least specify that the federal government should not acquire any additional land in the state. The federal government rarely sells land, but does do land exchanges — although that process can take many years. In the end, the exchange usually involves swapping expensive land near cities for larger chunks of land in rural areas. In addition, Indian Nations often use federal settlements and increasing gambling revenues to buy land to add to their reservations, which again removes land from the tax rolls.
“They take it into trust so it can never, ever be sold — more and more of that is happening,” said Kyl. “There’s only so much of that you can do. Folks back east just have no idea” the impact it has on an area like Gila County where the federal government and the tribes own about 97 percent of the land. “On the other hand, folks back east don’t have the wonderful access to federal lands that we do.”
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