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Benji Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

Northland Prepatory Academy holds the first-place trophy Saturday afternoon during the cross country state championships at Cave Creek Golf Course in Phoenix.


Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Ava Rios, 8, left, Aliya Hale,7, and Charlotte Gibbs, 8, play in a sprinkler Friday afternoon as record high temperatures for late December blanketed Flagstaff.


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ORGANIZATION OF THE YEAR
Organization of the Year: Forest 'Friends' a vital helping hand

They are the men and women who greet hikers at the start of Humphreys Trail, making sure they know the weather forecast and the supplies necessary to make the nearly 10-mile trip.

They are the workers building fences to protect sensitive aspen groves on the Coconino National Forest.

And they are the people who conveniently issue backcountry permits to hikers and skiers at Arizona Snowbowl on winter weekends.

All are volunteers and the common thread among them is their membership in the Friends of Northern Arizona Forests, or FoNAF. The 8-year-old organization works in partnership with the Coconino National Forest to accomplish work that the staff-and-budget-limited Forest Service doesn’t have the time or resources to do on its own. In 2017 alone, FoNAF contributed more than 4,200 volunteer hours to Forest Service tasks. 

For its dedication to this Forest Service support role, Friends of Northern Arizona Forests was chosen as the 2017 Arizona Daily Sun’s Organization of the Year.

The volunteer group’s core focus is on building and maintaining exclosure fences around aspen stands in forests around the Flagstaff area. The 8-foot tall fences are designed to keep elk, deer and cattle from munching on young aspen, which prevents regeneration.

“FoNAF will be the reason tourists visiting the Flagstaff area will be able to see aspen in the forest now and into the future,” Dick Fleishman, a Forest Service coordinator on the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, wrote in a letter of support for the organization.

When it started in 2009, the organization spent nearly all of its time repairing aspen exclosure fences on the Flagstaff Ranger District, said Dave Downes, the group’s treasurer. There are more than 60 exclosures on the district, and it took four or five years to repair and reconstruct the ones that had fallen into disrepair, he said. Now, each of the 20 or so members of FoNAF's aspen team is responsible for checking on a few exclosures each spring and reporting repairs that need to be made.

With that project mostly under control, the group has expanded to more projects on the Coconino as well as the Kaibab National Forest next door. In addition to building new aspen exclosures, volunteers modify old cattle fences to allow pronghorns to pass underneath and build fences to protect wet meadows, riparian areas and archaeological sites in the forest.

Over this year and last year, FoNAF volunteers stabilized the historic cabin near Big Leroux Spring and removed about half a ton of old wire and metal around Big and Little Leroux Springs, which made a marked environmental improvement, said Bruce Belman, the group’s vice president.

Another of FoNAF's tasks involved rebuilding a wildlife watering tank north of the San Francisco Peaks using an improved engineering design. The Forest Service has about 150 of the water tanks across the Flagstaff Ranger District, but the logging money set aside to construct the tanks didn’t account for continued operations and maintenance, so many have fallen into disrepair, said Tom Mackin, the group’s president. The tank rebuild by FoNAF volunteers has been a success, though, remaining at least 85 percent full of water while in years past it wasn’t more than 30 percent to 40 percent full, Mackin said.

In winter, a couple of the friends group's volunteers issue backcountry permits at Arizona Snowbowl’s Agassiz Lodge. The permits are required for people who ski, snowboard, snowshoe or alpine climb into the Kachina Peaks Wilderness outside of Arizona Snowbowl.

FoNAF’s newest initiative is a preventive search and rescue program that involves sending volunteers to the Humphreys trailhead every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The volunteers talk to hikers about the weather forecast and lightning awareness, give alternative trail suggestions and provide information about proper gear, how much food and water to bring for the hike and the signs of altitude sickness.

With more than 10,000 visitor contacts per year, the program has had the highest contact numbers of any program on the Coconino and contributed to declines in rescues and injuries on the mountain, Mackin said.

The group works with the Forest Service on everything it does. Every January, FoNAF members sit down with agency staff and hear about projects that could use volunteer assistance, then decide which they might have capacity to do. More recently, FoNAF has started suggesting its own projects on the forest as well.

The friends group is a special asset to the Forest Service, Flagstaff Ranger District wildlife biologist Cary Thompson wrote in support of the group’s nomination.

“We have many partners and volunteers that help us accomplish our mission but FoNAF is unique in that they are a long-term partner. They have a consistent member base with the required Forest Service training and are well versed in our culture,” Thompson wrote. “They have an understanding of our challenges yet focus on solutions.”

The group has 43 members and they are always looking for new volunteers, Downes said.

The organization provides an opportunity to get outdoors and do work that produces tangible results on the forest, said Bob Dyer, FoNAF’s secretary.

Mackin echoed those thoughts.

“It’s very easy to see the problems with a lot of public lands and personally I view FoNAF as an opportunity to be part of the solution to correct those problems,” Mackin said.

Their volunteer projects may not be flashy, but they matter quite a bit to people passionate about pronghorns, for example, or visitors interested in the area’s aspen trees, Belman said.

“We've become a tremendous multiplier for Forest Service efforts,” he said.


National
AP
Trump says East could use some 'global warming'

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Donald Trump says the East Coast "could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming" as bitterly cold temperatures are expected to freeze large swaths of the country this holiday weekend.

Trump wrote Thursday on Twitter, "In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year's Eve on record." He added: "Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!"

The president did not acknowledge the difference between the weather and the climate. Weather refers to the atmospheric conditions during a shorter period, while climate is a longer view of weather patterns.

Trump has repeatedly expressed skepticism about climate change science, calling global warming a "hoax" created by the Chinese to damage American industry.

He announced earlier this year his intention to pull out of the landmark Paris climate agreement aimed at curbing greenhouse gas production. The accord set goals for slowing the rate of climate change by reducing the emissions that contribute to melting Arctic ice, increasing sea levels and changing weather patterns across the globe.

The U.N.'s weather and climate agency said last month that 2017 was on track to become the hottest year on record aside from those impacted by the El Niño phenomenon, which can contribute to higher temperatures.

Last year set a record for Earth's average global temperature.

In an impromptu interview with The New York Times on Thursday at his golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump said he thinks special counsel Robert Mueller is "going to be fair" with respect to Mueller's investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election last year and alleged ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia.

Trump said "everybody knows" his people did not collude with Russians, insisting the "real stories" involve Democrats and their relationship with Russians during the campaign. Trump also told the Times he wasn't worried about the uncertainty concerning when the Mueller investigation might be concluded.

Of the Mueller probe, he said it makes America "look very bad, and it puts the country in a very bad position."

"So the sooner it's worked out, the better it is for the country."


Local
Flagstaff Literacy Center builds reading and citizenship skills

Guadalupe “Lupe” Martinez Gonzalez moved to Flagstaff under resident status when she was 18 to be with her mother and stepfather. She couldn’t speak a word of English.

Her first job in Flagstaff as a housekeeper was challenging because she didn’t know the language. She began to rectify that by taking English classes at The Literacy Center: Literacy Volunteers of Coconino County, now in its 23rd year of service to the community.

It was a slow process, to her, to become fluent in English, but she managed over the years, and she kept getting better jobs. She set her sights on becoming a citizen, and she got help again from the volunteers at The Literacy Center.

On Dec. 8, just a few days before her 24th birthday, she and more than 60 other people became U.S. Citizens during a ceremony at the U.S. District Court in Tucson.

“It feels nice,” Gonzalez said. “It feels important. I feel like I’m free.”

IMPROVING LIVES

“We offer individualized educational support for teens and adults in northern Arizona,” said Dianna Sanchez, executive director of TLC.

Among the learners who come to TLC are English language learners, basic language learners (native English speakers), pre-GED and GED learners, and literacy rehabilitation learners at the county jail, Sanchez said. The learners are offered regularly scheduled classes, one-to-one tutor support and drop-in support.

The learners come from all over the globe, Sanchez said, but most of the learners are Spanish speaking. There is no average makeup of learners who come to TLC, but what they all have in common is a dedication to improving the quality of their lives. The learners range from people who want promotions at work to Chinese scholars visiting NAU wanting to improve their English skills.

“We get to see so many people from so many walks of life,” Sanchez said.

The volunteers also come from all walks of life – from a retired mail carrier to a physicist from NAU.

According to the TLC’s annual report, the organization, with a budget of about $143,000, helped 381 people during the 2016-17 fiscal year. Those learners spent 4,700 hours improving literacy skills, and about 100 volunteers gave 5,000 hours of their time in instruction.

Angie Moline, who formerly taught environmental science at NAU for several years and speaks Spanish, has volunteered at TLC for the last year. Gonzalez was her first student, and they would meet once a week to prepare Gonzalez for the citizenship test.

“It’s been a really rewarding and fun process,” Moline said. “She’s become a good friend.”

Moline, who has gotten to know Gonzalez’s family, even went to the citizenship ceremony.

Moline added that she didn’t know what to expect from the process of helping somebody prepare for the citizenship test. But Gonzalez was a good student, and the year, after a national election where the names in positions of government changed, offered plenty of opportunity to show the interrelations between past and present and among the three branches of the U.S. government.

“It was a lot more fun than I expected,” Moline said. “It made me happier to be a citizen, too.”

NEXT STEPS

Gonzalez said that she began taking English classes about six months after arriving in Flagstaff, and she has continued her learning, both at TLC and at Coconino Community College, to improve her English skills.

She realized, about four years into the process, that she had the potential to become a U.S. citizen and began researching what she needed to do. She applied for citizenship in February, and she had her interview not too long ago.

“I was really nervous,” Gonzalez said, but the nervousness went away when the person conducting the interview asked her questions she knew the answer to. “The studying paid off.”

She turned in her green card and received her certificate of citizenship on Dec. 8. Now, she has a passport and plans to visit family in Mexico during the holiday season. Most of her family still lives there.

And her future?

She plans on attending university in Mexico to study business management because the tuition is cheaper there than here in the United States.

The road to citizenship has been a long one, Gonzalez said. But the Moline was generous with her time, and she always had the patience to answer questions and work with Gonzalez’s schedule to help her achieve her goal.

As to the help she received at TLC, Gonzalez touched her heart and said, “It was amazing. It’s a powerful community school.”

To donate, to volunteer, or for more information about The Literacy Center, visit www.thinkliteracy.org.


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2017 IN REVIEW
2017 in Review: Canyon development, uranium mining, coal plant dominate environmental news in 2017

The push and pull of economic development, energy production, tourism and resource protection around the Grand Canyon was the theme connecting much of the top environmental news of 2017.

In a decision that would have both environmental and economic ripple effects, the owners of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station near Page announced in February they would end their stake in the facility at the end of 2019.

Economics drove the decision, the owners said, as natural gas and renewable energy have become cheaper than coal-fired power. Although the plant owners are planning for plant decommissioning at the end of 2019, the Navajo Nation and Peabody Energy, which owns the coal mine that supplies the plant, are still working to find a new owner that would keep the facility going.

Revenues from the power plant and the coal mine make up 30 percent of the Navajo Nation’s budget and 85 percent of the Hopi Tribe’s budget, according to the AP. An NAU analysis found the plant pumps $51 million into Page’s economy and accounts for $6.3 million in property taxes and contributions to special districts in Coconino County as well as the county general fund.

While facing a loss of power plant-related jobs and revenues, the Navajo Nation Tribal Council voted against another major tourism development that promoters said would help replace fossil fuel-related revenues. The Grand Canyon Escalade plan included hotels, stores and a gondola that would shuttle visitors from Navajo land on the Grand Canyon's rim to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. The tribe would have received a portion of annual revenues but would have had to put up $65 million to put in infrastructure at the site. The tribal council voted against the project 16-2.

Confluence Partners 

An artist's rendering of the tramway descending to the confluence in the Escalade project.

Expanded development near the Grand Canyon got shut down again on Election Day when voters in Tusayan, just outside the park's South Rim entrance, defeated a ballot measure to increase building heights. The referendum would have increased the maximum building height in town to 65 feet, up from a current limit of between 35 feet and 40 feet.

In other Grand Canyon news:

  • Environmental groups cheered a U.S. appeals court decision in December that upheld a 20-year ban on new uranium mining around the Grand Canyon, though on the same day the court released a decision allowing operations to continue at a grandfathered uranium mine on the South Rim. Revising the Grand Canyon mining withdrawal also was among a list of recommendations released by the Forest Service in November in response to an executive order by President Trump related to the development of domestic energy resources. 
  • Environmental groups were hoping President Obama would declare a monument on 1.7 million acres north and south of the Grand Canyon, which would prohibit new mining claims in the area, but the president decided against such a declaration before he left office.
Emery Cowan / EcoFlight 

On Tuesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the Canyon Uranium Mine, located near the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The same day, the court upheld an Obama-era ban on new mining claims around the Grand Canyon. 

  • Facing the prospect of uranium ore being hauled through Flagstaff to a processing mill in Utah, the Flagstaff City Council approved a resolution officially opposing the transport of uranium ore and other radioactive materials through the city and neighboring communities.
  • Concerns about the treatment of pack horses owned by members of the Havasupai Tribe were revived after the arrest of a second tribal member in two years on animal cruelty charges related to one of his horses. 
  • The National Park Service released a plan to use nonlethal capture and removal as well as lethal shooting by trained volunteers to reduce the ballooning bison population that is damaging park resources on the North Rim.

FOREST FIRES, THINNING

  • Kendrick Mountain was ablaze during the month of June as the Boundary Fire burned through more than 17,700 acres and more than $9 million in federal cash. The Forest Service allowed the fire to burn in some places to ensure firefighter safety and clear out forest fuels. Smoke from the fire closed Highway 180 for several days and also led to poor air quality in places as far away as Cameron, Tuba City and Doney Park.
Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Firefighters are surrounded by low-intensity fire as they work on a back-burn operation near the Boundary Fire's containment lines at the base of Kendrick Mountain in June, 2017.

  • Mechanical thinning operations related to the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project began in forests around the Dry Lake Hills, requiring the closure of several trails.
  • The Four Forest Restoration Initiative continued to fall far short of its 50,000 acres-per-year tree thinning goal in 2017. In an effort to kickstart the logging work, the Forest Service promised a new large-scale contract. New managers also took over the struggling company that holds the first large-scale 4FRI contract with hopes of getting its work on track. 

Local
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Flagstaff's snowplay gridlock gets new attention in 2017

In Flagstaff's snowplay news, the year started off with snow on the ground, setting off what has become a predictable pattern: hundreds of cars streaming into the Highway 180 corridor, hours-long traffic backups, snowplayers crowding local roads and neighborhoods, and overwhelmed public safety officials. Facing mounting complaints and frustration, Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott made a new push for solutions to Flagstaff’s snowplay gridlock. He called a community meeting to brainstorm ideas, then gathered residents, businesses and local agencies into longer term task forces to move forward on viable solutions.

Some of those ideas will be fleshed out in a transportation plan being compiled by the Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority. The plan will look at ideas like increasing bus service along Highway 180, limiting highway access to residents and buses during busy times and creating alternate routes to exit the corridor that don’t involve going through Flagstaff.

The Coconino County Board of Supervisors took its own action on the issue, adopting an ordinance change that makes it illegal for anyone to park their car along county roads in the winter. While it applies county-wide, most of the signage for the ordinance will be installed in neighborhoods in the Highway 180 corridor. On a parallel track, the Arizona Department of Transportation installed new signs along a 9-mile section of Highway 180 to discourage snowplayers from parking along the road shoulder. The signs read “Emergency Parking Only.”

Two other closures will limit snowplay opportunities north of Flagstaff even more. Wing Mountain Snow Play Area announced this summer that it would not operate this winter, and the Forest Service will block access to the cinder pits and 500 off-highway parking spaces. The Forest Service also decided it will close the parking lot at Crowley Pit, an undeveloped snowplay site on the national forest, this winter. With the closure of Wing Mountain, the agency knows that even more traffic will be pushed to Crowley Pit, causing unsafe conditions at the 50-car-capacity area, Coconino National Forest spokesman Brady Smith wrote in an email.