The graffiti is everywhere once you start looking for it, said Jerry Checchia as he hiked the well-worn path to Bell Rock just south of Sedona last week.
Checchia carried a bottle of water and an abrasive sponge and every minute or two knelt down and started scrubbing where someone had decided to carve their own mark on the sandstone. At the first place, someone had scratched out a circle with a few shapes inside. Initials and hashtags were etched onto rocks nearby. Farther up the trail someone had carved a big heart with “I (heart) you L+D” inside. Initials or happy birthday messages are other common sightings, Checchia said.
A 55-year-old retired UPS driver and Sedona resident, Checchia is one of nearly 500 members of Friends of the Forest Sedona, a volunteer organization that works in partnership with the Forest Service’s Red Rock Ranger District.
The group works on nearly every aspect of the forest, from manning the visitor center to helping with trailwork to removing graffiti painted and etched into rocks and other objects around the district.
This year, the group logged a record 35,465 volunteer hours and was honored on a national level for putting in more service hours than any other volunteer group in the Forest Service.
The group is crucial in helping the agency meet and adapt to the challenges posed by the 3 million visitors who come through the Red Rock Ranger District each year, said Nicole Branton, the district ranger. The 160,000-acre district includes not only the red rock formations around Sedona, but also the heavily visited Oak Creek Canyon, a stretch of the Verde River and part of the popular Fossil Creek area.
“With everything we do, the Friends are there to help,” Branton said. “It’s no exaggeration at all to say the experience people have when they visit the Red Rock Ranger District, they couldn’t have that experience without the Friends of the Forest.”
When it was founded in 1994, Friends of the Forest Sedona focused mostly on trails and trailhead enhancement. Now, the group’s volunteers are involved in nine field work areas, six administrative groups and various other special projects, according to Manny Romero, president of the nonprofit group.
This year those projects included building a fence to protect a species of rare daisy on the district, monitoring peregrines and collecting native seeds.
The group is also bringing new innovations to aid in managing and improving the local landscape.
Among them is a new way to cover up rock graffiti developed by Friends member Nori Thorne. Trying to erase markings people carve into the soft sandstone has long posed a problem because scrubbing it off leaves a whitish mark that stands out on the rock, Thorne said. The mark is especially evident on rocks with a thin black or reddish mineral coating called patina or desert varnish.
Thorne is an artist and started experimenting with a way to cover up the markings, rather than just rub them away. After studying the pigments used by ancient Sinagua people in their pictographs in the Verde Valley, Thorne developed a method of using iron and manganese oxides mixed with egg yolk to create a type of tempera paint that mimics the rock colors and can be dabbed over the markings.
Volunteers have used the paints on rock graffiti and then returned two years later to find that it appears to be holding up well to water and light, Thorne said.
Another member of the friends group developed a smartphone app people can use to highlight places on the district that need work, such as a place where erosion or a fallen tree are affecting a trail or a sign that needs fixing.
The app allows the user to take photos and immediately record the GPS location of the problem spot, then sends that information to the appropriate Forest Service contact.
Another technological innovation developed by Friends volunteers combines photographs of archaeological sites on the district into a 3-D image that a user can turn around and examine from different angles. Those images help document the sites in case they are damaged in the future and could be put online in the future for people to view from afar, Branton said.
With all of the Forest Service’s other responsibilities, from restoring forests to taking care of watersheds, the agency’s own staff simply do not have the capacity to do projects like that on their own, Branton said.
Also helpful to the district is the expertise that Friends members bring to their work, Branton said. One man, for example, is a lichen expert who volunteered to survey and document lichen species on the district, which was much appreciated but far outside the agency’s own capacity, she said.
In 2017, members of Friends of the Forest Sedona contributed almost a third of the 125,000 volunteer hours logged on the Coconino National Forest. Group members cited a number of factors that make Sedona’s group so engaged.
For many, the landscape attracted them to the area and now they want to preserve and protect it, Romero said.
“The reason people move to Sedona in the first place is in large measure because of the environment,” Romero said. “The people who move here want to do something. They love the outdoors here.”
The large retiree population helps as well.
“A lot of retired people live out here and they’re out on the trails so a lot of them volunteer,” Checchia said.
Checchia said he volunteers on the forest about four days per week. The work is fun, gets him outdoors and allows him to meet new people, he said.
“We get to live in this beautiful place, I feel like I’m giving back,” he said.
Over its more than two decades in existence, Branton said the friends group has never shied away from jumping into a new project or responsibility.
“Even if we were focused on 10 things right now, if an 11th things emerges the Friends will be there to help with it and step up to whatever new, emerging challenge there is on forest,” she said.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Fresh off his biggest legislative victory of the Trump era, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Saturday disputed projections that the Senate's tax bill would add to the nation's debt woes.
Back home in Kentucky just hours after the Senate narrowly pushed through the nearly $1.5 trillion tax bill early Saturday morning, McConnell predicted that the boldest rewrite of the nation's tax system in decades would generate more than enough economic growth to prevent the burgeoning deficits being forecast.
"I not only don't think it will increase the deficit, I think it will be beyond revenue neutral," he told reporters. "In other words, I think it will produce more than enough to fill that gap."
President Donald Trump reveled Saturday in the Senate's passage of a sweeping tax bill, predicting with swagger that he and his fellow Republicans were "unbeatable."
The tax legislation now goes to a House-Senate committee, which will try to reconcile the versions passed by each chamber. "Something beautiful is going to come out of that mixer," Trump said, speaking during a fundraising trip in New York. "People are going to be very, very happy."
Looking ahead, the president boasted that Democrats' prospects in 2020 looked bleak.
"Right now unless they have somebody that we don't know about, right now we're unbeatable. We're unbeatable," Trump said. "And one of the reasons is what's happening with the markets, what's happening with business, what's happening with jobs."
Trump suggested Saturday he may be willing to negotiate changes to a significant portion of the tax overhaul, the corporate tax rate, injecting an element of uncertainty into the tax plan only hours after it cleared the Senate.
Trump told reporters at the White House before the New York trip that he would consider setting the corporate tax rate at 22 percent, compared to a 20 percent rate that he has pushed for with House and Senate Republicans during the fall.
Pointing to expected talks between House and Senate negotiators this month, Trump predicted "something beautiful is going to come out of that mixer" and the business tax would come "all the way down from 35 to 20. It could be 22 when it comes out, but it could also be 20. We'll see what ultimately comes out."
The shift perplexed some Republicans. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tried to pare back the proposed cut in corporate tax rates to 20.94 percent to provide a more generous increase in the child tax credit. But he was rebuffed.
"Senate leaders & White House fought hard to defeat expanded #ChildTaxCredit b/c of 20.94% rate but now 22% is ok?" Rubio tweeted Saturday.
Over the next decade, Republicans' tax plan is projected to add at least $1 trillion to the national debt. That would be on top of an additional $10 trillion in deficits over the same period already being forecast by the Congressional Budget Office.
"I'm not one of the total supply-siders who just believes that if you cut taxes, no matter what amount, you turn out ahead," McConnell said. "I still believe in revenue neutrality for tax reform, and I believe this is a revenue neutral tax reform bill."
McConnell's hometown congressman, Democrat John Yarmuth, said Senate Republicans had "abdicated any claim they had to being the party of fiscal responsibility."
"There is nothing remotely responsible about forcing through a ... hastily conceived bill to give tax cuts to the already wealthy and multi-national corporations," Yarmuth said in a statement.
McConnell predicted that the GOP-led House and Senate can resolve differences over the tax legislation and get it to President Donald Trump before Christmas. McConnell said he doesn't foresee any compromises that would threaten the Senate Republican coalition supporting the bill.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was the only lawmaker to cross party lines, voting in opposition along with Democrats.
McConnell also disputed claims by the bill's critics that it focuses its tax reductions on businesses and higher-earning individuals, while giving more modest breaks to others.
"I haven't run into anybody during this whole tax discussion who's very successful who thinks they're benefiting from it," the Senate leader said.
The bill would award about $2,200 a year in tax relief to the average family of four, McConnell said. "And that's pretty darn important to them," he said.
Voters ultimately can look to the nation's economic performance to determine whether Republicans or Democrats were right in the bitter tax debate.
"Look, a year or two from now, you guys can make an assessment which one of us was right," he said to reporters. "The proof will be in whether or not the economy picks up and things get better."
McConnell, the state's longest-serving senator, also indicated during his appearance in Louisville that he plans to run for another Senate term in 2020.
Asked whether he's bracing for a potential challenge from within his own party, McConnell said as a party leader he gets "a lot of slings and arrows."
"I think the best way to judge a campaign is how did it end, not how did it begin," he said, pointing out that he overwhelmingly carried the state in 2014 in the primary and general elections.
A city program meant to help police officers buy a home in Flagstaff has been expanded to all city departments.
The Flagstaff Police Department Employer Assisted Housing Program was broadened to all full-time employees who have worked for the city at least one year.
The program, which was originally approved by City Council in 2015, was created to help police officers make initial payments on a first-time home in Flagstaff.
Flagstaff City Council approved an additional $100,000 for non-police department employees along with $95,000 left for police officers. Both funds are budgeted separately and the programs are not guaranteed to be renewed past their initial funding.
Flagstaff Housing and Grants Administrator Leah Bloom said the housing program was expanded after strong participation from law enforcement officers.
“Council decided to put more money aside for all of our employees after the success of our police program,” Bloom said. “Programs like this are becoming popular nationwide and it shows we are willing to invest in our employees.”
Nine police officers have participated in the city program, but have used less than $5,000 out of $100,000 allocated for the program.
Flagstaff Police Spokesman Cory Runge said, “the police department is very happy with the housing assistance program and considers it a success.”
The housing program helps employees pay for housing by matching up to $10,000 on the down payment of a home.
The employees would then have $1,000 of that matched payment forgiven ever year they work for the city. For example, if the city matched $3,000 of an employee’s down payment, that person would have to work with the city for three years in order to avoid paying some or all of that money back.
Flagstaff Housing Manager Justyna Costa said the city forgives the matching amount in increments to ensure that both parties are investing in each other.
“This is not a handout,” Costa said. “It is an investment for the employer as well as the city. We are helping our employees afford their first home, which helps us with long-term employment. If someone gets a great job in the Valley one year after they used our program, then they would have to pay us back.”
Money is allocated to eligible employees on a first-come, first-served basis and employee interest has increased, according to Costa.
“There is a lot of interest in this program from the rest of our employees,” Costa said. “There is even some concern that this won’t be enough money, but that all depends on how many employees are ready to buy a home.”
City employees interested in the program can call the housing department at 213-2750 or Housing Solutions of Northern Arizona at 214-7456. Credit checks for eligibility are conducted by HSNA and not the city.