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The proposed Hub from Milton Road

Snowbowl seeks full exemption to forest closure barring public access

Five weeks after extreme fire danger led the Forest Service to close six large areas of the Coconino National Forest, the decision is receiving political heat fueled largely by its impacts to Arizona Snowbowl.

On Friday, 10 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen lamenting the inclusion of Arizona Snowbowl in the partial forest closure implemented May 23.

Under the closure order, Snowbowl has had to temporarily halt most of its summer operations, including the popular scenic chairlift, disc golf and a new bungee trampoline and mini ropes course. That, the resort says, has forced it to lay off or furlough all of its summer employees— a total of more than 70 people.

The resort has made a request for its operations to be exempt from the Forest Service closure order. Its request  included plans to stop every vehicle heading up Snowbowl Road and record their license plate numbers, control the route to Agassiz Lodge and educate guests on extreme fire danger, according to Snowbowl General Manager J.R. Murray.

In an email, Murray stated that the inclusion of Snowbowl in the closure order is not consistent with national policy, though he didn’t explain why.

He said the resort has a comprehensive incident management plan that includes fire prevention and fire suppression within the ski area. In advocating for an exemption, Murray pointed out that the resort inherently has many fire breaks in the form of ski trails as well as safe zones, more than 150 hydrants and a 10 million gallon pond that’s used for snowmaking during the winter.

Moisture and fuel loads are also different at the higher elevation where Snowbowl is located, he stated in an email.

'Wreaking havoc'?

In Friday’s letter, the legislators from New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Arizona stated that the forest closure has wreaked “havoc on the local economy” and went on to request that the Forest Service provide a detailed briefing justifying the closure, or immediately reopen Snowbowl so that its summer operations can resume.

“We are obliged to determine why the USFS has taken the unprecedented action of abruptly closing the ski area for reason of a hypothetical rather than actual threat — and with only minimal notice and no consultation provided to resort operators,” the letter said.

Democrat Tom O’Halleran, who represents Congressional District 1 that includes all of Coconino County, was not among the letter’s signatories but said he is also working on a compromise.

He said he has been helping foster discussions between Mountain Capital Partners, the owner of Arizona Snowbowl, and the Forest Service that he said are “paying off.”

“The two are already in talks about allowing expanded operations, should public safety concerns be addressed. I am very concerned about the impact this closure has had on business, but it is critical that we balance our public safety needs with the needs of businesses in the area,” O’Halleran said in the statement.

Limited exemptions

Coconino National Forest spokesman Brady Smith responded via email that prior to entering area closures, forest leadership and permit administrators “outreached extensively” to a range of community members and forest users, including Murray.

The agency also granted the ski resort some limited exemptions to the closure order, Smith said. Snowbowl is allowed, for example, to continue weddings and special events as long as they take place in the ski lodges or on adjacent decks. It can also move forward with erosion control projects, installation of certain summer activities near the Agassiz Lodge and annual maintenance on facilities and equipment.

That the Forest Service didn’t offer further exemptions goes back to the agency’s primary concern about the safety of those in the San Francisco Peaks. If a wildfire were to start on any section of the mountain, it has a likelihood of burning intensely and quickly up the slope, Smith said in an email.

“The probability increases on the south and west sides of the Peaks due to traditional southwest winds, which would drive a wildfire directly toward the resort and could cut off access to Snowbowl Road thereby trapping people at the resort,” Smith said. “We continue to work with Snowbowl on this issue.”

The last time the forest closed in 2006, Snowbowl’s scenic chairlift was also required to stop operations, according to a press release from that year.

Smith explained that all of the areas included in this year’s temporary closure order, including the San Francisco Peaks, represent places where the topography, prevailing winds and values like homes and municipal watersheds would make a wildfire difficult if not impossible to control in the dry conditions. Warm and dry weather is set to continue for at least another week, keeping the area in extreme fire danger.

Tourism economy strong

So far, the forest closure and the temporary suspension of operations at Arizona Snowbowl haven’t wreaked havoc on the local economy as the legislators’ letter stated, at least according to data from the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Looking at the metrics... I can't say that," said Lori Pappas, marketing and media relations manager at the bureau.

Forest closures forcing recreationists around Flagstaff to change plans

Brian and Dee Hill were among a handful of campers occupying the sites at Canyon Vista Campground Monday morning. The couple is from Phoenix and had planned to stay at the campground for a couple of weeks. That was until they found out that the Forest Service, starting Wednesday morning, will close several large areas of the Coconino National Forest, including a section that covers Canyon Vista.

Through the end of May, hotel room rates were tracking slightly higher than last year, which was a “pinnacle” year in terms of performance, Pappas said. While room occupancy rates were down slightly, there are an additional 300 rooms in town over last year, she said.

Some people do feel the closure more than others, Pappas said, but she said she wasn’t aware of any visitors who, because Snowbowl is closed, decided to cancel their trip to the area.

“There's a lot to do here so I can't point to hearing that,” she said.

Ben Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

A participant in the English Soccer Experience soccer camp watches his shot closely Tuesday evening during practice at the Northern Arizona University south fields. England is living up to its reputation as a soccer power, having reached the knockout round of 16 in the World Cup. For more on the World Cup, see Page B4.

Hit the trail: Wild Bill Hill a volcanic gem

Editor's Note:  Although major parts of four national forests are closed to the public, there are still plenty of trails and other outdoor destinations in the Flagstaff region that are open. Today, come along on a favorite crater climb in this trip report from 2012.  

Feeling too claustrophobic to accompany the houseguests and their kids on a trip into Lava River Cave?

Make it a two-fer, instead, with a combo bike/hike side trip to nearby Wild Bill Hill.

This little gem of an extinct volcano juts up from the floor of Government Prairie just south of the cave, and it delivers panoramic views and other-worldly hoodoos, too.

Richard and Sherry Mangum list Wild Bill Hill as one of just eight "personal favorites" out of 146 hikes in their book, "Flagstaff Hikes," and now I can see why.

This past summer, I made two trips to Wild Bill Hill -- one in June and one just last weekend. The difference is that the dry-season hike meant I could drive closer to the trailhead, but the trip in monsoon season was prettier, even though the last mile of forest roadway was impassable due to mud and water.

To overcome the latter, I car-topped my mountain bike to the junction of FR 171 and FR 156, then rode it alongside the muddy ruts out onto the prairie, which was a sea of green grass dotted by yellow, purple and orange wildflowers.

The Mangums describe Wild Bill Hill as a three-leaf clover with a crater at the center, and they have it exactly right. The trail up to the saddle between the north and south "petals" starts from the west, with a wooden sign marking the beginning. The third petal is on the east side, and the crater full of hoodoos is between the east and north petals, with a steep trail spilling out of the crater northeastward onto the prairie.

Once at the top, get your bearings by going to the bare south knoll first. It offers nearly 360-degree views -- if you look closely, you can see the old Beale Wagon Road snaking across the prairie below you.

Then take a cowpath over to the saddle between the north and south knolls, which is the lip of the crater. From here, you are looking out over a moonscape of cinnamon-colored stalks of lava that fall away to the northeast. You can descend through the hoodoos by scrambling down the slope to your left (west), but be sure to wear long pants, long sleeves and gloves -- the cinders are very abrasive on human skin.

The narrow passage through the hoodoos drops you back out onto the prairie in about a half-mile. For there, follow another cowpath counter-clockwise along the base of the hill and back to your bike.

And since you are wearing a helmet and protective clothing anyway, go join your houseguests inside Lava River Cave -- just don't forget your headlamp and an extra flashlight.

Texting ban for teens on learner's permits takes effect Sunday

PHOENIX -- Come Sunday morning, Arizona won't be only one of two states that has no restrictions on the ability of motorists to use their cellphones while driving.

But just barely.

It applies only to teens with a learner's permit or those who are within the first six months of being able to drive.

And the law even ties the hands of police, prohibiting them from citing drivers solely because they are seen texting or talking. Motorists can be ticketed only if they had been stopped for some other reason, like speeding.

There also are exceptions for people to call or text during an emergency "in which stopping the motor vehicle is impossible or will create an additional emergency or safety hazard.''

And teens will be able to use a phone's turn-by-turn navigation system -- but only if they enter the location before they start driving and don't adjust it while behind the wheel.

Still, the legislation, approved more than a year ago, is the state's first tentative step to set some statewide limits, however minimal.

More to the point, it was approved by lawmakers pretty much because of how little it did -- and how few people it affected.

Still, it is a law.

And there are penalties starting at $75 for a first offense. A third offense is a $100 fine, with the teen losing his or her license for 30 days.

All that leaves Montana as the only state in the nation with absolutely no restrictions on what motorists can do with their cellphones while they're behind the wheel.

Several communities, including Flagstaff, already have their own driving-while-texting bans. Those remain in effect if stricter than the new law.

Arizona lawmakers have tried for years to adopt some sort of statewide restrictions on the use of cell phones for years.

For example, Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, has proposed to make it illegal for anyone, regardless of age, to send texts or messages while behind the wheel. And Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, has crafted a more comprehensive measure, covering not only texting and messaging but also forbidding making calls without a hands-free device.

But these all died amid a variety of complaints by some lawmakers, ranging from whether existing laws on distracted driving already cover the issue to creating a "nanny state'' environment with the government telling people what's good for them.

In fact, even this narrow new law focused solely on new drivers barely survived -- and only because of a political twist of fate.

The measure had been ushered through the Senate by Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, on a 24-6 margin and then gone through the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, gaining approval by a 7-1 margin.

But it stalled when Rep. Phil Lovas, R-Peoria, who chairs the House Rules Committee, through which every bill must pass, refused to clear the bill. Lovas said he feared it might lead to even greater restrictions on adult drivers.

But the fates intervened, in the form of Donald Trump, as Lovas quit to take a post in the Trump administration.

That allowed House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, to name himself to chair the committee. And Mesnard, who supported the legislation, got the panel to give its OK, setting the stage for the final House approval.

Fann lobbied heavily for the measure, telling colleagues that it really sets no new precedents.

She pointed out there already are special restrictions on new drivers, including limiting the number of unrelated teens who can be in the vehicle as well as prohibiting them from driving after midnight unless it is to go to work or school.

Potentially more significant, Fann promised colleagues that she would not try to follow up this year with an expanded bill.

That, however, did not keep Farley from making a new bid this year that sought to ban all motorists from texting while driving. But it failed, even after he offered compromises to limit the amount of the fines and spelled out that violations could not be used by the Motor Vehicle Division to take away someone's license, nor be an excuse for an insurance company to raise a motorist's premiums.

High court OKs Trump's travel ban

WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Supreme Court upheld President Donald Trump's ban on travel from several mostly Muslim countries Tuesday, the conservative majority taking his side in a major ruling supporting his presidential power. A dissenting liberal justice said the court was making a historic mistake by refusing to recognize the ban discriminates against Muslims.

The 5-4 decision was a big victory for Trump in the court's first substantive ruling on one of his administration's policies. It also was the latest demonstration of a newly invigorated conservative majority and a bitter defeat for the court's liberals.

The ruling came on an issue that has been central for Trump, from his campaign outbursts against "radical Islamic terrorism" through his presidency. He tweeted a quick reaction — "Wow!" — and then celebrated at greater length before TV cameras.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion for the five conservative justices, including Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch, who got his seat only after Republicans blocked President Barack Obama's nominee for the last 10 months of Obama's term.

Roberts wrote that the travel ban was well within U.S. presidents' considerable authority over immigration and responsibility for keeping the nation safe. He rejected the challengers' claim of anti-Muslim bias that rested in large part on Trump's own tweets and statements over the past three years.

But Roberts was careful not to endorse either Trump's statements about immigration in general or Muslims in particular, including his campaign call for "a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

"We express no view on the soundness of the policy," Roberts wrote.

The travel ban has been fully in place since December, when the justices put the brakes on lower court rulings that had ruled the policy out of bounds and blocked part of it from being enforced. It applies even to people with close relatives in the United States and other strong connections to the country.

In a dissent she summarized aloud in court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, "History will not look kindly on the court's misguided decision today, nor should it." Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan also dissented.

Sotomayor wrote that based on the evidence in the case "a reasonable observer would conclude that the Proclamation was motivated by anti-Muslim animus." She said her colleagues in the majority arrived at the opposite result by "ignoring the facts, misconstruing our legal precedent and turning a blind eye to the pain and suffering the Proclamation inflicts upon countless families and individuals, many of whom are United States citizens."

She likened the case to the discredited Korematsu v. U.S. decision that upheld the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Roberts responded in his opinion that "Korematsu has nothing to do with this case" and "was gravely wrong the day it was decided."

The travel ban was among the court's biggest cases this term and the latest in a string of 5-4 decisions in which the conservative side of the court, bolstered by the addition of Gorsuch last year, prevailed. He was chosen by Trump after Republicans in the Senate refused to grant a hearing to federal appeals Judge Merrick Garland who was nominated by Obama in March 2016.

Soon after the ruling, the campaign of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who orchestrated the strategy to keep the high court seat away from Obama, tweeted a photo of McConnell and Gorsuch.

The Trump policy applies to travelers from five countries with overwhelmingly Muslim populations — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. It also affects two non-Muslim countries, blocking travelers from North Korea and some Venezuelan government officials and their families. A sixth majority Muslim country, Chad, was removed from the list in April after improving "its identity-management and information sharing practices," Trump said in a proclamation.

The administration had pointed to the Chad decision to show that the restrictions were premised only on national security concerns.

The challengers, though, argued that the court could not just ignore all that had happened, beginning with Trump's campaign tweets to prevent the entry of Muslims into the United States.

Trump had proposed a broad, all-encompassing Muslim ban during the presidential campaign in 2015, drawing swift rebukes from Republicans as well as Democrats. And within a week of taking office, the first travel ban was announced with little notice, sparking chaos at airports and protests across the nation.

While the ban has changed shape since then, it has remained a key part of Trump's "America First" vision, with the president contending that the restriction, taken in tandem with his promised wall at the southern border, would make the Unites States safer from potentially hostile foreigners.

On Tuesday, he hailed the ruling as "a moment of profound vindication" following "months of hysterical commentary from the media and Democratic politicians who refuse to do what it takes to secure our border and our country."

Strongly disagreeing, Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota said, "This decision will someday serve as a marker of shame."