Firewise Volunteers Take A Crucial Step

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“A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.”

Lao-tzu

A single step. A single spin of the wheel. The first mile of trail: Big things start small.

We could all learn a lot from the community activists in Pine and Strawberry who have fought stubbornly and creatively to protect their community.

Just check out the story in today’s Roundup about the effort to turn a vital firebreak into an economic boon, thanks to an indefatigable band of community volunteers.

The Pine-Strawberry Fuels Reduction Committee three years ago faced a seemingly overwhelming problem. A century of grazing and fire suppression had created a tinderbox forest — and made the community one of the most fire-menaced in the country. One estimate suggested that the community had a 20 percent chance of surviving an approaching wildfire.

But the problem seemed rooted in ossified Forest Service policies, far beyond the reach of a little band of community activists.

But perhaps they could take a single step.

So the committee set to work on an audacious idea. Why not build a trail that would not only provide a firebreak and provide firefighters essential access, but also draw hikers, riders and mountain bikers?

The idea seemed far-sighted — but daunting in its cost and complexity.

For starters, the group had to win the cooperation of the U.S. Forest Service — and surmount the bewilderment of bureaucratic barriers. They managed to get clearances in a mere three years — which counts as quick in Forest Service time.

Now with the studies completed, the fuels reduction committee hopes to raise another $150,000 in grants and donations to pay for the construction of the trail itself. The eight-mile trail will start near the Strawberry Trailhead and connect to the Pine Canyon Trail as it weaves through the forest on the north side of town.

The committee and the Forest Service will train trail-building volunteers in Pine prior to the Oct. 6 start of construction.

So we salute the Pine-Strawberry Fuels Reduction Committee, which has worked so patiently to protect the community from the single, haunting threat if its existence — in a way that will also boost its economy.

Into the breach ...

“Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more,” thundered King Henry V in Shakespeare’s rendering of the siege of a French port in the 100 Years War.

The line fits the remarkably successful effort to raise $100,000 to help offset the costs of buying 260 acres of Forest Service land as the site for a university campus in Payson. Come to think of it — the length of the war fits too.

The Rim Country Educational Foundation answered the call to arms when the would-be investors in the university project balked at coming up with the absurd $375,000 up-front payment the U.S. Forest Service demanded for studies so it can sell a plot of land earmarked as disposable by Congress 12 years ago. The Forest Service insists it has to adhere to its process and charge would-be buyers up front for the privilege of maybe getting a chance to pay the appraised price to foster a project the federal government should be tripping over itself to encourage.

Determined to demonstrate the depth of community support for a campus here, the Educational Foundation organized a series of fund-raising events, often with the help of the Central Arizona Board of Realtors. The backers held a dance, a raffle and an art walk, in addition to rattling the tin cup in grocery store checkout lines.

Once again, this determined, good-hearted, far-sighted community responded — as we did when the food bank needed help and the Humane Society needed a new shelter and a dozen other groups have faced long odds in serving this community.

Donations have now topped $100,000. Hopefully, this will trigger additional, promised matching donations. For now, it provided enough money to get the environmental assessment process lurching forward, in hopes the Forest Service will clear the land for a direct sale.

At last report, intense negotiations continue between the Rim Country Educational Alliance (SLE) and Arizona State University and at least two other universities. We’re still hoping that ASU President Michael Crow’s recent direct intervention will finally yield a deal. If not, we trust all of the groundwork already completed will result in a quick agreement with one of the other universities already involved in the discussions.

In the meantime, we can only celebrate the remarkable willingness of people in this community to take up arms for a good cause — and rally once more to the call to battle. Even if it does seem like the war’s been going on for 100 years.

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