We’Re Really Happy, But Need To Vent

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We’re still hostage to the Forest Service — but at least they’ve finally delivered a ransom note that sounds promising.

The Forest Service required an incredible eight months to come up with a Scope of Work to hire an independent appraiser to put a value on 253 acres of vacant land the Rim Country Educational Alliance wants to build a university campus. In the real world, such a task would have taken a week or two — but what can you do?

Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth says the bid package will go out to four or five federally certified appraisers next week. They’ll have 10 days to respond — and whoever gets the nod will have up to 75 days to actually do the appraisal.

Bosworth and Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Angie Elam have been steadfast supporters of the land sale. Lord knows how long this would have taken without their efforts on our behalf.

But the truth remains, they’re trapped in a system so irrational it’s impossible to satirize.

Recall that Congress authorized the sale of this land 14 years ago, since it’s completely surrounded by private land and no use at all to the Forest Service. The Alliance has struggled desperately for three years to buy the land so it can finally sign an agreement with Arizona State University and build a campus desperately needed by both Rim Country and the state of Arizona.

In any rational world, the governor, the Legislature and the Forest Service would have rallied to the cause four years ago. After all, the Payson Ranger district gets all new facilities with the money from the sale. Meanwhile, studies show Arizona will have to double the number of college degrees it can offer in the next 20 years. And what do you know: Here’s a model for building a college campus without spending any state money at all. In fact, it’s a model for building the state college system Arizona urgently needs to train the workforce of the future.

But instead of lending a hand, they’ve all been flinging themselves at the effort like a bunch of crazed suicide bombers.

We waited in slack-jawed astonishment through the one-year delay it took to perform an environmental assessment, which uncovered not a single rational reason to delay the sale. Oh, yeah, they found some 500-year-old pottery shards. That cost us another six months and a couple hundred thousand dollars.

For the last eight months, we’ve been waiting for the only qualified Forest Service bureaucrat in the whole southwest to write an 18-page Scope of Work. Mind you, we’re talking about vacant land and the independent appraisers are not only professionals — they’re pre-certified by the Forest Service. By contrast, it took a couple of weeks to appraise the 22 acres of vacant land across the highway — which worked out to $25,000 an acre.

Fortunately, the appraisal itself should take a fraction of the time it took to write the instructions for doing the appraisal. So maybe we will get an agreed-upon price by August. Then it will probably take the Forest Service another four months to close escrow. But, hey — that’s only about four times as long as a normal escrow, so, like, Dude, we’re making progress.

Still, this is a legitimately big deal. Once the Alliance and the Forest Service agree on a price, the rusted wheels can again grind into motion. The Alliance can finalize the deal with ASU, get a developer to draw up the detailed plans, finish digging trenches where they found the precious pot shards and line up the financing. With any luck, all that will come together by about January — and the bulldozers can get started early next year. The long linger in escrow will actually give the Alliance time to get everything lined up before it has to pull the trigger and borrow the money to both buy the land and build the campus.

We’ll never understand why the agencies that should have been allies have made this so hard.

Forest Service officials say they have to follow the rules to protect the taxpayers. But that’s just crazy, since we’ve got taxpayers on both sides of the deal. The feds own something like 97 percent of the land in Gila County. We’re trying to make a living on their scraps. If this had anything to do with helping the taxpayers, the Forest Service would have just given the Alliance the land years ago, with a little note of apology for keeping so much land locked up and useless for anything but crown fires.

All right. We know. We’re venting. We’re just trying to calm down sufficiently to respond to the ransom demand.

So now that we’re calm, let us just say, we’re so happy to hear from you.

We really, really, really want to pay the ransom.

Just please — don’t send us any more fingers.

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