Arizona Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema on Wednesday introduced legislation that could pave the way for the creation of a veterans retreat and community center for the nearly 5,500 military veterans who call Gila County home.
“It was back in June when I first spoke to Woody Cline (Gila County District 3 supervisor) about the project. It really resonates with me as a veteran,” Kelly said in an interview with the Roundup Sept. 29.
The Pleasant Valley Administrative Site Proposal legislation supports Gila County’s existing plans by transferring an underutilized Forest Service ranger station near Young, known as the Pleasant Valley Administrative Site, and the accompanying 232.9 acres of Forest Service land to the county for use as a veterans retreat and community center.
The community center would provide a gathering space for veterans and their families to host retreats, meetings, and other events. The area would also serve as a location for a mobile veterans clinic for veterans who cannot easily access a VA Medical Center.
U.S. Representative Paul Gosar (AZ-04) in the House is introducing the bicameral, bipartisan effort.
“As a 25-year veteran of the Navy, I have made it my mission to ensure that the federal government lives up to its commitment to our military veterans and families who have sacrificed so much for our country,” said Kelly, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Gila County veterans deserve a place to gather and receive services in their community, and today we are taking an important step towards making that a reality.”
“Completing this Gila County land transfer will open the door for new support services for veterans across the region. We’re proud to partner with Senator Kelly and Supervisor Cline to ensure Arizona veterans get the support and benefits they’ve earned,” said Sinema, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
“I am proud to support this effort to create more opportunities for our veterans in Gila County through the transfer of these facilities and this land to the local community. Too often our communities that are landlocked by surrounding federal land have few opportunities to create these critically needed services.
“By working with the Forest Service and transferring these underutilized facilities to the county we are creating a win-win, a win for our veterans and a win for our local community,” said Gosar.
Gosar and his staff have been assisting with this project since 2018, and he and his staff have been working on a bill to transfer ownership to Gila County.
“We are excited to provide a first-class veterans facility in a unique, peaceful and beautiful rural setting,” said Cline.
“Thanks to Senator Kelly and Senator Sinema’s commitment to veterans, this legislation moves us closer to providing programs and services that will benefit veterans and families in Gila County and across Arizona.”
Cline has worked on the project since 2017, when he went looking for office space in Young. At the time staff from the Pleasant Valley Ranger District were moving to the new Tonto National Forest offices in Payson, leaving the Pleasant Valley Administration site with minimal staff.
Cline asked the district ranger if he could rent some space in the building for an office. He was told the TNF didn’t want to rent out space in the building, but the county could have the whole building.
So that began the process. The entire building was too much for a single office, but looking around it and the surrounding property Cline thought it was perfect for a veterans service center and potential veterans retreat — something not available anywhere else in northern Arizona.
Cline went down a lot of different roads before getting to a Special Use Permit.
Approval of the Special Use Permit, which is from December 2020 to December 2040, makes it possible to begin organizing and providing services to veterans, not just from Gila County but also from across the state. The permit is for 20 years, but it makes access for maintenance and use possible until ownership of the site can be transferred to Gila County. The legislation introduced by Kelly, Sinema and Gosar starts the transfer process.
TNF Supervisor Neil Bosworth proposed the idea for a Special Use Permit in early 2020. During the procedure of obtaining the Special Use Permit, a consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office was required because historic buildings are on the site and those buildings would be included in the permit. An onsite consultation was held with SHPO staff, the TNF archaeologist, and county staff. A plan was developed for future building upkeep as well as immediate concerns and submitted for SHPO approval. In addition, county staff developed an Operating Plan and submitted it in February 2021 as a supplement to the permit application.
The annual permit fee will be $36,157, with 100% of that fee used to offset the cost of government maintenance and reconditioning projects. Cline said with the county managing the reconditioning and maintenance on the property, the fee would be a wash.
A nonprofit board will handle the day-to-day operations of the facility. The board will also be tasked with working with veterans organizations, conducting outreach, and performing fundraising events.
The TNF will continue to maintain firefighters at the ranger station during the fire season to allow quick response to any fires in the vicinity.
Cline said the biggest thing that impressed him was the fact that there has been no opposition to the proposal. However, there was also no mechanism in place to make it happen until Vicki Christiansen was brought in as 19th chief of the United States Forest Service. Coming from Washington state, she had been working on three similar projects, so was able to provide a guideline to get to the Special Use Permit.
The Gila County Board of Supervisors approved on July 27, 2021 the Special Use Permit with the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding the Pleasant Valley Administrative Site/Tonto National Forest in Young to provide veterans services.
“The proposed veterans facility will be an important resource for the veterans of our White Mountain Apache Tribe. I’m in full support of this important project legislation by Senator Kelly and Senator Sinema for Gila County and our state,” said District 2 White Mountain Apache Tribal Councilman Jerold Altaha.
“The Pleasant Valley Veterans Association with a membership of over 60, enthusiastically and wholeheartedly support Senator Kelly and Senator Sinema’s legislation to continue the efforts of Gila County’s continued acquisition and development of the Pleasant Valley Veterans Camp,” said Gary Lollman, president, Pleasant Valley Veterans Association.
“This facility has the potential to not only benefit the veterans of our community, but veterans and their families from across the state of Arizona.”
Kelly said getting the transfer legislation approved was fairly straightforward; however there was no way to tell how long it would take. Following the bill’s introduction, it is assigned to the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which Kelly is a member.
It is possible there could be a hearing on the legislation, but once it clears the Senate and House committees, it will advance to the floor of each body. If there are no changes and it passes, it goes to the president for his signature. If there were changes, it would go back to one or both committees.
“I am committed to getting it through,” Kelly said.