They want to sell us the land.
Really. Badly — just not quickly.
That’s the mixed message that emerged about the Rim Country Educational Alliance’s struggle to buy 260 acres of land from the U.S. Forest Service for a 6,000-student university campus and various spinoff facilities.
Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth says he believes the proposal to sell the land directly to the Alliance will finally leave the regional office in Albuquerque this week or next. He said he hopes officials in Washington will then approve the direct sale of the land based on an independent appraisal rather than competitive bidding within the month.
Tonto Forest officials first submitted the proposal to the regional office months ago and have already rewritten it twice.
However, other potentially expensive requirements could delay the project for months even after getting that approval, say sources close to the negotiations.
Asked for comment, officials for the Alliance issued a release saying, “important milestones were achieved last week in the process to acquire 250 acres of U.S. Forest Service property.”
Alliance Chairman Steve Drury in the release commented “we’ve developed a new appreciation for the depth of regulatory oversight on the sale of a piece of federal property even when the sale is for a purpose that benefits the public. We remain concerned about the potential costs of cultural mitigation. There are still multiple directions this process could move.”
Bosworth, who has pushed hard for the sale in the months since he took over as forest supervisor, said, “It’s moving. It’s just not moving at the pace at which it would be nice. The kicker is the direct sale part of this. You have to have really good rationale. The regional office is trying to beef up our rationale. We’ve been greasing the skids a little bit. It’s the foremost issue in our minds.”
Bosworth said he’s confident that once officials in Washington approve the direct sale approach, the Tonto Forest can come up with a legally binding sales agreement that will allow the Alliance to move forward.
However, sources close to the negotiations say the discovery of a handful of pottery shards continues to bedevil the process. Backers raised about $150,000 to do an environmental assessment of the site, with took about six months and uncovered the shards and some evidence of “structures.” Such pottery fragments remain widely scattered in Rim Country as a result of thousands of years of human occupation.
Now, the Forest Service reportedly wants the buyers to pay consultants to prepare a $230,000 plan to investigate whether fragments of pottery found in 11 places on the 260-acre site might signify the presence of a village, human burials or other significant archaeological remains. Officials from Bosworth on down say they do not think the shards indicate the existence of significant remains or ruins. However, reportedly the buyers might still have to come up with reserves or a bond to guarantee up to $500,000 to excavate the area around where the last batch of consultants found the pottery shards and preserve whatever archaeologists uncover. Some Alliance officials feared they would have to come up with $500,000 on top of the $230,000, but Bosworth said the $500,000 represents a worst case scenario. He said the cost might actually come in at less than the $230,000 estimate if the consulting archaeologists finds only shards.
The Alliance doesn’t want to shell out all that money without a guarantee the Forest Service will then actually sell it the land at a price established by an independent appraiser. However, that means the Alliance can’t begin the months of work necessary to do the archaeological plan and mitigation until after Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C. approve the direct sale, thereby guaranteeing the sale originally authorized by Congress more than a decade ago. That could delay an agreement with ASU into next year, even if the Forest Service approves the direct sale within the month, said sources close to the negotiations.
Arizona State University and the Alliance worked out details of the plan months ago, but then put their talks on hold until the Alliance could secure the land from the Forest Service. Investors have balked at putting out any more money for pre-development costs — like dealing with the archaeological sites — without a guarantee and timeline for acquisition.
Bosworth said this week that he believes the plan can go forward as soon as Washington approves the direct sale plan.
“One of the things we can do, we can say everything’s done and we’re waiting for archaeology. We can issue permits, so they can start moving on it. Nothing’s going to stop this at that point. I’m pretty sure we can do something to make sure the money gets kicked loose. Investors need some kind of guarantee. We understand that,” said Bosworth.
The appraisal of a 22-acre parcel directly across the highway suggests the ultimate purchase price for the 260 acres of Forest Service land will likely fall between $5 million and $7.5 million. Only about 30 percent of the parcel is flat enough to build on, but backers wanted to create a unique, forested campus nestled in among the trees, rock formations and hills of the Forest Service site.
A special act of Congress will allow the Payson Ranger District to use the money from the sale of the land to build a new ranger station, a helipad and facilities for firefighters who every summer battle blazes throughout the region. Normally, money from federal land sales goes into the treasury. Without the land sale, the Tonto National Forest Service would lose that money — and the chance to upgrade scattered, cramped and aging facilities.
Bosworth said he believes that if the national office approves a direct sale in the next month, the Tonto Forest could strike some sort of an agreement to guarantee the sale so that the Alliance could go to investors for the money to finish the archaeological studies.
“They’re required by law to have a report,” said Bosworth, “and tell us exactly what they’d done. That takes some time. Doing the work takes some time and then doing the report takes some time. I still believe the archaeological work won’t be holding up this project. My decision on the final Environmental Assessment will come very, very shortly after we get approval (for the direct sale) from the Washington office. But I can’t sign the EA until I have a sales implementation plan.”
The release by the Alliance left key issues vague. The release said the Alliance has submitted an archaeological “treatment plan” and a memorandum of agreement to the national Advisory Council for Historic Preservation, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and several Native American tribes. Each group has 30 days to comment.
The release quoted Mayor Kenny Evans as saying “local Forest Service officials have been very supportive throughout the process. Our deepest desire is to get a suitable site under contract as soon as possible and then move toward finalizing our university partner.”