More than 100 public lands ranchers filled a conference room at the DoubleTree hotel in Flagstaff last Friday for the chance to hear from the newly appointed head of the U.S. Forest Service.
Chief Tony Tooke was appointed to the position last month, making Flagstaff one of his first visits since he took on the leadership role.
The occasion was the annual conference of the Public Lands Council, an advocacy organization for cattle and sheep producers who hold public lands grazing permits.
Tooke, an Alabama native, said he’s had to learn a lot about the West and western issues so far and promised to visit as much of the nation’s 190 million acres of national forest as he could. He also committed to streamlining federal environmental review processes and working on issues like vacant grazing allotments and increasing the Forest Service budget to pay for programs besides fire suppression.
Tooke had an overwhelmingly positive message for ranchers as well.
“Grazing is a very important management tool for rangelands and I greatly appreciate what you do and what you do in your stewardship roles,” Tooke said.
People who graze on public lands help provide clean water, prevent and suppress wildfires, restore rangelands, control invasive species and benefit wildlife, Tooke said.
He lauded ranchers for sustaining natural resources and helping the Forest Service “deliver conservation on the ground.”
“You provide jobs, you provide impacts to local economies, rural communities, you have a commitment to stewardship and we share in that,” he said.
When it comes to grazing in northern Arizona, program managers for two local ranching operations said Tooke’s comments ring true in some senses, but in other ways fail to acknowledge the potential for grazing to have a detrimental impact on the landscape.
Grazing in the region certainly has the potential to benefit grasslands, said Jeremy Krones, program manager with the Diablo Trust, a partnership between the Flying M and Bar T Bar ranches.
In studies conducted at the ranches by researchers at Northern Arizona University, moderate grazing was shown to result in more and healthier plant diversity and more carbon sequestration than no grazing or overgrazing, Krones said.
But historically, the situation was vastly different. When Bar T Bar owner Judy Prosser’s grandfather first saw the pasture south of Interstate 40 that the ranch now occupies, it was decimated by overgrazing and had to be completely fenced off before it could recover, Krones said. Other research papers have documented serious overgrazing that led to “catastrophic” cattle losses and widespread range deterioration in Arizona around the turn of the 20th century.
In short, the environmental benefits that Tooke mentioned in his talk should all “come with asterisks,” said Ed Grumbine, who directs the Grand Canyon Trust’s Land Program and oversees the nonprofit’s North Rim Ranches, which cover 830,000 acres north of the Grand Canyon.
“Big picture statements about ‘this works here therefore it works everywhere’ are just inaccurate and it’s one reason why the West has a history of overgrazing,” Grumbine said.
While studies from California have found that moderate grazing increases biodiversity, for example, “I don’t know any study that yields similar results in other parts of Southwest,” he said.
In terms of water resources, Grumbine countered Tooke’s statements that grazing public lands are “critical” to water quality and water quantity.
There is much more evidence of grazing having negative impacts to riparian streamside areas and to springs unless ranchers install fences to keep cows out of sensitive water sources and manage the animals’ use of surface water, he said.
“If that surface infrastructure is lacking, you can really screw up aquatic ecosystems with a very few amount of cows,” Grumbine said. “That’s one of the tragedies of the West, especially the more arid parts where we live.”
Grazing’s impact on fuels and fire risk is also a mixed bag, he said. Cows eat grass and trample dry matter, which decreases the amount of fine fuels that could carry fire to thicker woody fuels, Grumbine said. But in ponderosa pine forests, it is that ground vegetation that helps carry and sustain low-severity ground fires that are crucial to maintaining forest health and keeping tree densities in check. Heavy grazing in the past is then part of the reason those forests are now overstocked.
Most literature also suggests forage utilization should be less than the federal government allows in grazing permits, Grumbine said. The Grand Canyon Trust, which has a goal of restoring and protecting the area the North Rim Ranches occupy, stocks only about half the animals allowed by its permit. The Flying M Ranch, on the other hand, uses about 90 percent of its stocking rate.
The discrepancy is just one example of the variation in landscape productivity and land management best practices across the region.
Generalities are suspect, Grumbine said.
“They just don’t get at the lived experience of ranchers in the West.”
For the first time in decades, a new hotel is open and accepting guests in downtown Flagstaff.
Steven Shumway, a co-owner of the Marriott Residence Inn on Humphreys Street, said when he and his brother, Shane, were researching a new location for their company’s eighth new hotel development, downtown Flagstaff stood out as the perfect place.
Downtown Business Alliance President Terry Madeksza said the hotel is one of the first private developments in the downtown area in the last 75 years. Heritage Square was created as a public-private partnership, and the Lumberyard Brewery was a redevelopment project, Madeksza said.
Shumway, the fourth-generation owner of the Show Low-based Whiting Brothers Investment Co., said Flagstaff’s proximity to home and the city’s downtown scene made the corner or Aspen Avenue and Humphreys Street the ideal location.
“We like to stay within a radius,” Shumway said. “Our research showed that Flagstaff, especially downtown Flagstaff, would be a good location for us.”
Downtown Flagstaff is already a draw for tourists, with an excess of 75 restaurants and nightlife activities within walking distance of the hotel, he said.
“People come to Flagstaff and they love to be downtown,” Shumway said. “It’s become quite a fun place to be and to hang out.”
The hotel itself has 110 rooms, each equipped with a kitchenette. The first floor includes a fitness center and a pool and spa. Breakfast is included for each room, and the patio on the south side of the building has a barbeque grill and outdoor fireplace area for guests to use. The hotel will also cook dinner about three times per week for guests to buy if they choose, Shumway said. Rooms on the north side of the building boast views of the mountains as well as the historic district.
The hotel features a total of 112 parking spaces, with most located in the parking lot on the south side of Aspen Avenue, and the other spaces located in the lot behind the hotel. The hotel is an “extended stay” hotel, meaning the longer a person stays at the hotel, the cheaper the rate gets, Shumway said. For people looking to stay for a weekend, Shumway said prices start at about $159 per night.
So far, the reaction to the completed hotel has been positive, he said.
“I had a neighbor come in the other day, and she was initially opposed to it,” he said. “But she said, now that she can see it completed, she sees how well it fits. I’m sure there are some people who are still opposed to it, but it’s nice to at least hear that.”
Building in downtown brought an extra level of sensitivity to the project, Shumway said.
“I think people were worried that this was going to ruin the downtown,” he said. “But we’ve been super happy with the response we’ve gotten.”
The hotel was under construction for about 16 months before it opened September 12, Shumway said. The project required demolishing a rental car business, office building and restaurant that were located on the site. Porter Brothers, a general contractor based in Gilbert, built the hotel for Whiting Brothers, which purchased the franchise from Marriott to get permission to use the name and the management systems, Shumway said. This is the company’s first Marriott, but the Shumway brothers own several Hilton properties.
For Shumway, his favorite part of the hotel is the brick and stone exterior, which he said is a more expensive way to build, but made a big impact in the look of the building.
“I love how it turned out on the exterior,” he said. “It has a good look and fits well.”
As for the location, Shumway said “the convenience is hard to beat,” and said he has enjoyed bringing his business to Flagstaff.
“There’s a good feeling and good people in Flagstaff,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know a lot of good people.”
Heather Herrick experienced an event that is only a nightmare for most parents: watching the school bus go by without dropping off your child and then having to call the police to help you find your child.
Herrick said the incident happened about two weeks ago. She dropped her 7-year-old son off at Knoles Elementary. It was the first day that he would ride the bus home. Herricks explained that her son had attended first grade last year at a local charter school and had never taken the bus to and from school. To make sure that she had the right bus stop to pick him up that afternoon she checked the school’s website and with the office assistant at the school. After confirming she had the right stop, she asked that son and his teacher be notified so that he would be reminded as to which stop to get off at and that she would be waiting for him there.
That afternoon, Herrick waited at the bus stop and was astonished to see the bus zoom by without stopping. She tried to flag down the bus driver but was unsuccessful. She then called the school, which put her in touch with the dispatcher at the bus barn. The dispatcher got in touch with the bus driver, who said that the boy had gotten off at a prior stop, but couldn’t say exactly which stop.
Herrick said she was advised to calm down and call the police to help locate her child, which she did. She then contacted one of her older kids at home and had him start to search the neighborhood on his bike. About 20 to 30 minutes later, she found her son, crying and trying to find his way home.
Bob Kuhn, the FUSD assistant superintendent of Operations, said unfortunately at least once or twice a year, the district deals with the problem of a misplaced child. Sometimes the child has gotten off at the wrong stop, like Herrick’s son, and sometimes it’s because the parent forgot that they gave the student permission to stay after school for a program or permission to take the bus to a friend’s house.
Kuhn said in Herrick’s case, a number of things made the situation worse. The usual bus dispatcher was out sick. It was the boy's first ride on a school bus and he wasn’t sure where he was supposed to get off and gave the bus driver the wrong stop.
But Kuhn said change is the works for just such a problem that befell Herrick and her son: a new bus/student tracking program called Here Comes the Bus.
The program includes a near-frequency card and card reader, he said. Each student will have a card attached to their school bag that is programed with their name, picture, bus route and teacher’s name. A near-frequency card reader on the bus will read each card as the students get on and off the bus and the information will pop up on a display for the bus driver.
The system also includes a free smart phone app for parents and students that uses the bus’s GPS system to let them know when the bus will arrive and when their student got on and off the bus. It also lets the district know which stops the student got on or off the bus, which makes the problem of a misplaced student a lot easier to resolve.
Kuhn said the new bus tracking program is supposed to be installed in November. The district wanted to install it at the beginning of the school year but needed more internet bandwidth.
Kuhn said most bus drivers know the students on their bus and where they’re supposed to get off. Herrick’s son was new to the driver and she didn’t know that he had given her an incorrect bus stop. Most bus stops are located near homes and at the intersections of main streets in neighborhoods.
Herrick said she’s never heard of a child being able to get off the bus at another stop without a note from a parent. She has older children who have attended FUSD schools and each has had to have a note in order to ride the bus to a friend’s house or to get off at a different stop from their normal stop.
Kuhn said that all students have to have a note to get off at another stop or to ride a bus different from their normal route. The district has always had that policy and it hasn’t changed. The district also has a policy that kindergartners are not allowed off the bus unless a parent is waiting for them at the bus stop.
Herrick asked that an investigation be opened. When the investigator called her back last week, she told Herrick that no one was at fault and that her son was actually still on the bus when it zoomed by her. She was told that the buses can carry up to 50 kids and it’s hard for bus drivers to remember where each child is supposed to get on and off. She was also told that it was her son who gave the bus driver the information on where he was supposed to get off and he wasn’t exactly sure of the street, so he told the driver the name of a street that he could remember in the neighborhood. When the bus got to that street, the bus driver reminded him that this was his stop and told him he needed to get off there.
“She didn’t even ask him if he saw his mom or if he was sure that this was his stop,” Herrick said. “I’m not trying to dis the district or the bus driver. I just want to know what happened, so we can prevent this from happening to another student and parent.”