The comment period on the environmental assessment of the sale of 260 acres of federal land for a university campus in Payson expired last week, but the Forest Service continues to defer comments on the prospects for the timing of the sale of the land.
The Rim Country Educational Foundation (RCEF) raised money from the community to cover the cost of the assessment, which found no significant impacts when it comes to endangered species, air quality and other issues — but did find pottery scatters and the remains of ancient shelters in about 11 spots on the property.
Congress earmarked the parcel for sale more than a decade ago, but the Forest Service determined that it had to complete the environmental assessment before deciding whether to sell the land directly to the Rim Country Educational Alliance (SLE), based on an independent appraisal.
The Payson Ranger District wants to use the money from the sale of the land to build a new ranger station, fire facilities, storage facilities and a landing area for helicopters. If the Forest Service doesn’t sell the land, it can’t afford to build any of those facilities.
Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Angie Elam said the comment period on the environmental assessment closed last Friday.
In an e-mail she wrote, “after processing of any comments, a Decision Notice will be written by the Forest Supervisor followed by a 45-day appeal period. Regarding Archaeological resources — mitigation must take place prior to deed transfer, but we are looking into options for flexibility of implementation.”
Steve Drury, chairman of the SLE, affirmed that Mayor Kenny Evans and the SLE team continues to work at multiple levels to expedite the construction in as timely a fashion as possible and prudent.
“We have a good working relationship with the Forest Service and are aware of the complex and often baffling array of rules and regulations they must follow,” said Drury.
The SLE has been trying to buy the parcel for nearly two years.
The RCEF had to put up the money to both pay for the environmental assessment and for Forest Service personnel supervising the consultant. Backers raised more than $150,000 from the community to pay for the assessment and other pre-development costs, but hope that the eventual developers of the proposed 6,000-student campus will eventually repay that money — which can fund scholarships.
The assessment revealed no environmental problems with the sale and detailed the substantial benefits to the Forest Service in completely overhauling its offices and facilities in Payson.
Elam did not elaborate on the archaeological “mitigation” the Forest Service would require before transferring title. Presumably, that could include a more thorough archaeological study and either preserving artifacts discovered or protecting sites with significant archaeological resources from development.
Backers of the campus have been negotiating with Arizona State University for more than four years to build a campus here. They originally predicted the proposal would go to the Arizona Board of Regents for approval a year ago. More recently, they predicted that ASU could sign a deal in December if the Forest Service had approved the environmental assessment.
Elam did not provide an estimate of how long it will take to compile the comments or how long it might take to “mitigate” the potential impact on the archaeological resources.