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Photo courtesy DJ Craig 

Roger and Jo Freeman doing what they do each holiday season — embody the spirit of Santa and Mrs. Claus. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Freeman’s have dedicated 40 years to the Claus Cause

Jo Freeman didn’t know how she and her husband Roger could squeeze the visit in.

The couple channels the spirit of Santa and Mrs. Claus each holiday season, booking up to 60 events into a six-week period. Every Christmas they’ve become Mr. and Mrs Claus for 40 out of their 50 years of marriage.

The caller said they were visiting relatives in Payson and their little boy was afraid Santa wouldn’t find him because he wasn’t at is own home.

Jo and Roger decided they could squeeze in the visit by leaving one gig 15 minutes early and showing up 15 minutes late to the next event. Little did they realize what that decision would mean.

The Freemans have lived in Payson for 15 years, serving every year as the embodiment of Santa and Mrs. Claus. The two have a wall of pictures and framed Santa Claus Academy certificates. Year-round, Roger maintains a perfect Santa beard.

“The fathers encourage their kids to pull it to make sure it’s real,” said Jo.

Skeptical kids also poke his stomach.

“We get poked and punched a lot,” she said.

That said, they take their roles very seriously.

“When Roger starts polishing that buckle, he no longer is Roger,” she said. “I’m always Mrs. C.”

But the beaming faces of young and old make it all worthwhile.

“At the end of an evening, our cheeks hurt from smiling,” said Roger.

Each year, Jo said she wonders if it will be their last. So far, the two will hear nothing about ending their tradition. Their holidays not only include children, they also visit nursing homes.

“If you could see the faces of 90-year-olds,” she said, “they light up just like the children.”

One year, they visited the Alzheimer’s unit at Rim Country Health, thinking of their own family members afflicted with the condition.

“When we walked in, this old man looked up and exclaimed, “I knew you would (obscenity) come!” said Jo.

The manager of RCH was embarrassed, but Jo and Roger told him it warmed their hearts to bring joy to everyone — no matter how they expressed it.

That desire really paid off when the two went to the little boy’s house.

“We arranged with the family for us to knock on the door,” said Jo. “The look on his face! He just beamed and said, ‘You found me!’”

Turns out, the boy had Down syndrome.

Delighted, he sat between Santa and his wife, petting their velvety clothes with fur trim. He kept saying, “I love you.”

Such moments make up for the difficulties of playing the role — like the year Mrs. Claus fell off the fire truck they rode in the Electric Light Parade. She slipped as she climbed off the truck, “I was wearing these little Mary Janes with no tread.”

Suddenly, someone yelled that the Roundup was coming to grab a photo.

“My hat was off, my dress still trailed up the stairs,” said Jo. “Roger picked up my hat, put it on my head and helped me to straighten my skirt. I still had a piece of hair sticking out when they took the picture.”

A moment frozen in time, just like that little boy.

Two weeks after their visit, the Freemans received a call from the Payson family thanking them for the special visit.

“I told them we looked forward to seeing him again next year,” said Jo. “She told me, ‘That’s why I called. There won’t be a next year. He passed away.’”

To this day, Jo and Roger thank whatever spirit inspired them to change their plans to squeeze in one more visit.

Maybe, the spirit of Santa Claus played a part.

Julia Randall Elementary choirs warm hearts in concert

Third- and fourth-graders warmed the hearts of audience members during the Julia Randall Elementary School Holiday Concert at Payson High School Auditorium on Wednesday, Dec. 5.

Principal Linda Scoville welcomed the audience to the first of two performances featuring music teacher Dirk Gorre accompanying on guitar as Lori Standifird conducted each choir.

Gorre estimated 120 students took part in the two presentations. Both performances were split into two parts, with three classes in each.

Autumn Brown’s, Pamela Jones’ and Cassandra McCandless’ third-grade classes opened the show by singing “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.”

Students from Tina Fuller’s, Andrea Jakubek’s and Penny Smith’s third-grade classes finished the first performance with their renditions of “Frosty the Snowman” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” All the third-graders and the audience finished the first performance by singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

A break followed, allowing parents and families for the third grade performances to exit and those there to see the fourth-graders to enter.

The second performance opened with Monica Kelley’s, Alecia Page’s and Janice Hoyt’s fourth-grade classes singing “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.”

Gina Brooks’, Catherine Goldman’s and Terry Ramirez’s fourth-graders closed the night with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” All the fourth-graders finished with “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Forest advocates make plea for biomass power plants

Backers of a historic plan to restore forest health and save rural communities from wildfires made a desperate plea to the Arizona Corporation Commission this week to require power companies to burn wood scraps for energy.

The vital effort to thin dangerous tree thickets on two million acres can’t succeed without a market for the millions of tons of brush and small trees, said Jason Whiting, co-chairman of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) stakeholder group.

Nearly a decade of effort by three different contractors has cleared perhaps 15,000 acres in total, rather than the 50,000 acres annually envisioned by the world’s largest forest restoration project. The expense of getting rid of the massive amount of biomass has repeatedly stymied those efforts, said Whiting.

The forest restoration backers want the ACC to require power companies to buy at least 90 megawatts of energy from biofuel power plants burning plant waste. Currently, a single biomass-burning power plant in the White Mountains produces about 28 megawatts annually.

Some proposals suggest putting a new wood-burning power plant in Payson, which would produce perhaps 150 jobs.

Payson sits at the center of the 2-million-acre 4FRI project area. A new biofuel plant would also provide a ready market to accelerate thinning of forests throughout Rim Country, including on the endangered, 64,000-acre watershed of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir.

The Corporation Commission meets today to consider the plea. This story is based on arguments filed with the commission last week. See Friday’s Roundup for the outcome of today’s meeting.

A study by Arizona Public Service concluded building new plants to burn biofuel would cost substantially more than generating the same amount of energy from new natural gas or solar facilities. Therefore, burning enough biomass to handle the million tons of waste produced by clearing 50,000 acres annually would add $1 to $4 a month to the average APS homeowner’s electric bill, concluded the study.

Clearing 50,000 acres would also produce roughly 1 million tons of logs to produce other wood products.

Advocates of a biofuel mandate said the benefits of thinning the forest would spread throughout the state.

Studies suggest thinning the ponderosa pine forests from the current roughly 1,000 small, struggling trees per acre to about 50 to 100 large, old-growth trees per acre would increase runoff into reservoirs by as much as 20 percent. Arizona is already facing rationing of water from the Colorado River in 2020, with the state agreeing to pay $30 million to at least reduce the extent of the water cutbacks.

Moreover, large-scale forest thinning offers almost the only hope of avoiding more megafires like the Wallow Fire and the Rodeo-Chediski fires, which each burned 500,000 acres or more. Eight major fires in the past 15 years have cost Arizona residents roughly $2 billion, in addition to the deaths of more than 19 firefighters.

Fires still burning in California have consumed 10,000 homes, inflicted $10 billion in damages and killed more than 80 people — with hundreds still missing.

“Arizona may not have had catastrophic fires over the last five years,” said Whiting in a statement submitted to the commission, “but the 2018 California Camp Fire should make it clear in everyone’s mind that Arizona has only been lucky and that inevitably this luck will run out if an all-hands, all-lands effort is not urgently implemented to treat the half million acres cleared by the 4FRI National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis and the upcoming additional half million acres.”

The Forest Service has developed an ability to do all the environmental analysis on 100,000 acres at one time for restoration projects, rather than doing the work on one timber sale at a time. This promises to dramatically streamline the thinning process, once the contractor finds a market for the wood and biomass.

4FRI represents an attempt to create a new, small-tree logging industry to restore millions of acres of ponderosa pine forest in northern Arizona. Without the help of industry, it would cost perhaps $1,000 per acre to mechanically thin the forest. This would cost roughly $2 billion to clear two million acres. That’s a bargain compared to letting the whole forest burn, but still equals the annual Forest Service firefighting budget for the whole nation.

Every acre treated in the 4FRI prescription generates 26 tons of usable logs and 23 tons of logging slash — branches, tree tops and trees smaller than six inches in diameter. So for 4FRI to ramp up to clearing 50,000 acres annually, industry would have to process 1.3 million tons of logs and perhaps 1.5 million tons of biomass every year for decades.

Whiting said the Forest Service has repeatedly gambled on contractors who said they could use the millions of tons of biomass in high-tech processes to make things like jet fuel. But the past decade has demonstrated none of those technologies can handle the sheer mass of wood and slash produced, he concluded.

“Burning biomass under tight emissions control to generate electricity is currently the only scalable technology available,” wrote Whiting.

Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency considers burning biomass a “carbon neutral” technology. The trees consumed don’t take stored carbon out of the ground and release it into the air like oil and coal. In fact, modern biomass plants capture most of the carbon and other pollutants. This means burning the trees in a biomass plant would release far less heat-trapping carbon dioxide and lung-damaging soot into the atmosphere than a forest fire.

NovoPower operator Brad Worsley submitted a statement urging the Corporation Commission to require utilities to buy energy from biomass plants as well as seek support of the Arizona Legislature to offset some of the costs.

He noted that the existing 28 megawatt power plant in Show Low has a $30 million economic impact on the region.

He pointed out that the majority of the thinning in the 4FRI project area has taken place in eastern Arizona, thanks to the market for small diameter trees and biomass created by the earlier, White Mountain Stewardship Project. However, during one period when NovoPower was shut down, restoration work all but stopped, due to the lack of somewhere to haul the wood too small to go through the mills.

The APS report also failed to take into account the true value of the electricity generated by a biomass plant, wrote Worsley. Biomass plants can generate power around the clock, like coal-fired plants. Solar and wind-generating facilities can contribute to critical, peak-power loads only when combined with batteries that store the power they generate for later use. If APS had considered the cost of those batteries, the cost of biomass power and solar power could come much closer.

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$200,000 grant for STEM at PUSD

The Payson Unified School District has received a $200,000 grant from the Caris Charitable Trust for science, technology, engineering and math education.

Payson High School, Payson Center for Success, Rim Country Middle School and Julia Randall Elementary will use the money to improve science and technical (STEM) programs.

“The Payson Unified School District has a core value of innovation,” said Brenda Case, director of student achievement. “This generous gift will help the district continue to be innovative in providing a world-class education for the students in Payson and surrounding communities.”

Each school will use the money to bolster existing programs.

Julia Randall Elementary

JRE will establish a STEM lab based on the LEGO Education Program to teach an introduction to physics concepts and problem solving — up to the development of coding robotics.

The school will receive a little over $30,000.

“This generous gift will allow JRE to establish a STEM lab that will create a science- and technology-rich environment for all our students,” said Linda Scoville, principal of JRE.

Rim Country Middle School

RCMS will split its more than $80,000 between equipment for a STEM lab and the LEGO Education Program.

Students will build robots and then develop graphical programming to tell the robots how to carry out specific commands.

To help students understand robotics, RCMS will purchase a license from Microsoft for Minecraft, a video game that allows players to build worlds.

“I am so excited for our students,” said Principal Jennifer White. “This generous gift will ensure that we can keep challenging the students at RCMS as we prepare them for high school and beyond.”

Payson Center for Success

PCS will continue its already robust robotics program with $15,000.

“The school and robotics program is thankful to the Caris Charitable Trust for their gift,” said Linda Gibson, lead teacher. “This funding will help the robotics team purchase the necessary equipment to build their robot and participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition.”

PCS students have participated in the FIRST Robotics Competition, a 30-year project-based, hands on competition, for the past few years.

Payson High School

Payson High School will use its more than $70,000 to also create a STEM lab. The PHS lab will have robotics equipment, CDA computer software, drones and a 3D space scanner.

“Biochemistry, engineering, computer programming and emerging technologies are just a small sliver of the STEM workforce needs,” said Jeff Simon, principal. “This gift will allow PHS to start to build a lab that will prepare our students for college and the workforce.”

The gift has excited PUSD Director of Technology Vicky Andrews as she sees how the STEM labs will supplement her Hour of Code activities. The Hour of Code seeks to bring computer science education into all schools.

“This gift will allow students in the district to be exposed to the concepts in the Hour of Code all year long,” she said.

PUSD continues to implement technology in the K-12 educational setting through opportunities such as the Caris Charitable Trust grant.

Google recently recognized PUSD as a Google Education Reference District — an honor shared by only 234 districts in the world.

“The district will use technology in our schools to bring the world to our students,” said Greg Wyman, superintendent.

Star Valley sheriff stats

Star Valley hasn’t had any major crimes in the past four months — just a slew of traffic accidents.

The Gila County Sheriff’s Office listed 14 vehicle collisions between August and November, six on private property or surface streets and eight on State Route 260.

One of the accidents involved a motorist striking an elk.

Since the state barred speed cameras on the highway, the Star Valley Town Council has worried speeders would cause more accidents.

The GCSO sends deputies through town regularly, who make an average of 40 traffic stops a month. Deputies issue 17 citations on average a month, including traffic and criminal charges.

The most common charges included fighting, speeding, disorderly conduct and waste of a finite resource.

Here is a breakdown of accidents given by Lt. Tim Scott:

Aug. 6: Two vehicle, non-injury in the 300 block of East Springdale; a vehicle backed into another vehicle.

Aug. 10: A single vehicle non-injury accident on SR 260.

Aug. 17: A vehicle struck an object while backing up near Circle K.

Aug. 18: A single vehicle ran off the roadway, injuries on SR 260,

Aug. 27: A driver was cited for striking another vehicle during an unsafe lane change near the Lamplighter on SR 260.

Sept. 3: A “paint transfer” between two vehicles on North Star Vale.

Sept. 5: A two vehicle non-injury accident on South Rainbow and Moonlight Drive.

Sept. 23: A driver struck two other vehicles on SR 260 after they said they were blinded by the sun.

Sept. 30: A vehicle was T-boned while pulling onto SR 260.

Oct. 3: A driver backed into a fence in the 100 block of South Rainbow Drive.

Oct. 8: A vehicle lost control and rolled, possibly during a storm, on SR 260.

Oct. 10: A vehicle towing a trailer crashed into the cinder block wall at Plant Fair Nursery on SR 260.

Oct. 20: A vehicle struck an elk on SR 260.

Nov. 20: A two vehicle, non-injury accident in the 100 block of East Springdale; one person arrested for DUI.