Deaths Impose A Moral Imperative




Get out of the way.

The House Subcommittee on Public Lands quivered on the brink of relevance last week, when it took up the desperate plight of the nation’s forests — and the inept management decisions that have left us perched here on the edge of catastrophe.

We were pleased that Gila County’s two representatives — Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Flagstaff) and Paul Gosar (R-Prescott) called for an urgent and immediate response to the tragic deaths of 19 Prescott Hotshot firefighters. They both supported the need for a consensus solution to replace years of mindless deadlock.

However, other members of the committee ranted and railed — more interested in placing blame than seeking workable solutions. One committee member displayed an appalling ignorance of the roots of the problem when he called for a return to Forest Service policies that cut down most of the big trees to make the forest “healthy.” That policy in fact contributed to the unhinging of fire-adapted ecosystems across millions of acres.

Fear of that kind of rhetoric caused Rep. Raul Grivalva (D-Tucson) to initially seek to postpone the session, for fear cynical lawmakers would try to turn the deaths of 19 heroes to partisan advantage.

We disagree.

In fact, this is the perfect moment to discuss the abject federal failure to manage our forests — and the moral imperative those deaths have created. If not for the safety of our towns, if not for the health of the forest, then let us act to honor that terrible sacrifice.

The hearing touched on many of the solutions to a problem decades in the making. First, the Forest Service must immediately revive the faltering Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which still offers the best long-term solution. It represents that essential consensus — but the Forest Service appears intent on throwing it all away.

Second, Congress must establish a fund to fight the forest fires that federal bungling have turned into horrifying cataclysms. Otherwise, the Forest Service will have to continue raiding its prevention and restoration projects to put out the now-inevitable fires.

Third, Congress must adequately fund restoration and thinning projects — in partnership with states and counties. That means increasing the Forest Service budget and renewing the partnership legislation that’s set to expire.

Finally, these same congressmen must purge themselves of partisanship, as though facing a common enemy in time of war. Reasonable men and women will surely differ on so complex a problem. But they must give up the quest for partisan victory and instead seek solutions that both work and can muster broad support.

But if you can’t lead or follow, then please, get the hell out of the way.

Better late than never

So we’re delighted members of the Payson School Board have belatedly decided that the school district needs a plan.

We wish the board had stopped, scratched its head and asked a few questions along that line before approving the sale of Frontier Elementary School for a fraction of what taxpayers had invested. But, heck — gotta start somewhere.

A recent discussion at a board meeting revealed that the school district relied on some vague and poorly supported projections by outsiders in deciding to sell Frontier. The school board readily accepted projections suggesting the district’s slow, steady enrollment decline will continue unabated.

Curiously enough, the district didn’t ask the Town of Payson for help — although the town’s general plan calls for us to grow eventually to a population of at least 38,000.

Nor did the district seriously consider various proposals for lease arrangements that would have put Frontier to good use while the district waited to see if the impending deal to bring a university to campus would jump-start growth — and reverse the enrollment decline.

We lamented that decision at the time, but the school board plunged ahead.

However, the board seemed to catch a whiff of reality recently when it learned that the $1.2 million it will get from the sale of a school site that could house hundreds of students will barely pay for four new classrooms needed to offer all-day kindergarten at Payson Elementary School.

That revelation prompted board members to ask for some sort of clear plan for the future before approving a willy-nilly building program — like they did when they spent bond money fixing up Frontier, only to turn around and sell it off a few short years later.

A bit late, perhaps: But better now than never.


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