Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth believes the Forest Service will complete the review of the sale of land for a university campus in Payson “quickly,” with no extra delays as a result of the discovery of pottery shards and centuries-old rock shelters discovered scattered across the 260 acres.
“This is a top priority for us. We are working aggressively to move this project forward. Data recovery from archeological sites was always part of this project. It will be conducted concurrently with the approval process.
Bosworth said he believes that the regional office in Albuquerque will soon finish its review of his office’s request to approve a “direct sale” of the land to the Rim Country Educational Alliance SLE. This will enable the Forest Service to sell the land based on independent appraisals rather than a competitive bidding process.
Once the regional office approves the direct sale strategy, the proposal goes to the national office in Washington, D.C., which must also sign off on a direct sale, said Bosworth, during a lull in a public meeting in Payson on how the Tonto Forest can cope with a $600,000 deficit in its recreation budget.
In the meantime, the Forest Service continues to work with a contractor to come up with a plan to handle the bits of pottery, stone artifacts and traces of dwellings an initial survey uncovered at about 11 places on the Forest Service parcel south of Highway 260 between Mud Springs Road and Tyler Parkway.
Backers of the university raised some $150,000 to pay for an environmental assessment of the property, including an archeological survey. That assessment found no problems with endangered species, historic sites, pollution, noise, wildlife or other issues, but did raise questions about the preservation and extent of prehistoric artifacts.
Bosworth said federal law requires the Forest Service to search carefully for any human burials on land it sells or develops, as well as valuable archeological sites. He said the preliminary survey has found no evidence of burials or a substantial village, which means the more detailed study and possible excavation could go quickly.
Bosworth said he expects that the archeological studies will be completed before the Washington office signs off on a direct sale, which could take several more months. Once the national office approves the direct sale, the Forest Service will need to get several independent appraisals. If the Alliance then agrees to the sales price, it would amount to a guarantee to sell the land — one of the key conditions Arizona State University has asked for before signing a binding commitment to build a campus.
Bosworth noted that the Forest Service cannot legally transfer title on the land until it has made sure no burial sites or unprotected archeological sites remain. If the survey does find artifacts, they can be removed and perhaps studied and displayed at the Payson Ranger District office.
“We’re very aware of the importance of this project — and the importance of moving quickly,” said Bosworth, who took over the top job at the three-million-acre Tonto National Forest in June after working as a member of the Forest Service’s Legislative Affairs staff in Washington, D.C. In that job, he worked on issues like climate change, fires and fuels and wilderness designations. An Air Force veteran, he earned a degree in forestry from the University of Montana and a master’s degree in fire ecology.
The Alliance SLE has been laboring to jump through all the necessary hoops to buy the land from the Forest Service for nearly two years, although Congress earmarked the land for sale 12 years ago. Normally, money from federal land sales goes to the Treasury, but in this case, the Tonto National Forest can use the money to completely overhaul its cramped and outdated facilities in Payson. The Payson Ranger District will end up with a new ranger station, new storage facilities, a helipad for rescue and firefighting choppers, a new maintenance yard and facilities to house wildlands firefighters.
The oft-delayed push to build a 6,000-student campus that would likely inject more than $100 million annually into the local economy stalled out early last year when investors balked at putting up the $150,000 needed to complete the environmental assessment. The backers also had to come up with money to cover the Forest Service costs of reviewing the work of the consulting firm doing the assessment. A local, volunteer campaign raised the money.
Investors have said that they plan to pay back the money used to cover those predevelopment costs once the project moves forward. The Rim Country Educational Foundation, which launched the fund-raising campaign, has said it would then use the money to benefit students.
The Alliance continues to negotiate the terms of a final deal with Arizona State University, although sources close to the negotiations say several other public and private universities have continued to signal their interest if ASU doesn’t follow through.