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Flagstaff economy thrives despite forest closures

At the beginning of this year in Flagstaff, only one-hundredth of an inch of precipitation had fallen since Sept. 2 and the first measurable snow of the season didn't happen until Jan. 9. In addition to the worries about dry foliage and forest floor around Coconino National Forest, fires across the west raged and sapped some of Arizona’s fire resources.

In May 2018, Coconino National Forest administrators made the decision to close areas of the forests that posed a risk for fires and damaging the community. The closures dampened the spirits of businesses and people looking forward to spending their time outdoors this past summer. But despite fears, the city economy at large seemed to either benefit or stay the course for their expected earnings.

The closure area in the Coconino Forests covered six areas including Mount Elden, Mormon Mountain and parts of the Mogollon Rim.

Brady Smith, public affairs officers for the Coconino National Forest, explained that the decision to close was made to protect the forests from the possibility of catastrophic wildfire during what is traditionally the more dry months of the year.

And while the monsoonal downpour would later produce enough rain to lift the partial closures, the shutdowns spanned a month and a half from May 23 to July 10.

Bernd Conrad, courtesy 

Pictured here are Mount Elden and the Dry Lake Hills as seen from Buffalo Park and obscured by a blanket of rain clouds in June. That storm prevented additional closures of the Coconino National Forest at the time.

Closure effectiveness

For the purpose of mitigating fire risk, the national forest was also in Stage Two fire restrictions across the forest while the closures were in effect.

The forest service saw a large decrease in the amount of citations given from the last year when the forest was not closed. They separate their citations between human-caused fire, abandoned campfire and illegal campfire.

  • Abandoned campfires were virtually not an issue this year, dropping from 156 in 2017 to one case of an abandoned campfire.
  • Human-caused fires decreased by more than half, from 48 in 2017 to 21 this year.
  • Illegal campfires decreased from 100 in 2017 to 45 this year.

In total, the forest service handed out 304 citations last year with fewer closures, while only 67 citations were delivered under this year’s closures. Smith was pleased with the outcome, and said that they viewed the closures as successful, although there were some difficulties.

“As you go further on into the season, more and more people become more informed. At the beginning of the season, it’s difficult to get word out, especially to the Phoenix community,” he said.

But despite the difficulty they had with early awareness, Flagstaff locals made up a larger part of the violations than they had hoped.

“We have to apply these restrictions across the board -- it’s the fairest way to do it,” Smith said. “Area closures are area closures for a reason, and we have to keep people out, not just Phoenix people out.”

Business impact

The city economy benefits from the forest in the summer when tourists are looking to get out of the southern Arizona heat, or just looking to get lost in the woods. Fortunately for Flagstaff businesses, the cooler temperatures and other amenities were still enough of a draw for people looking to vacation.

Reviewing the city’s monthly sales tax can be one indication of how well the city’s various markets fared during that particular month. Overall, there was a total 11 percent gain in sales tax — or over $2.2 million — gained by the city in June of this year compared to June 2017.

One sector that has the most direct impact on the Flagstaff economy is the hotel and lodging industry. According to a study of 2,400 city visitors commissioned by the city for the 2017-18 year, 74 percent of visitors traveled to Flagstaff and stayed overnight, with 79 percent staying in a hotel or motel.

The city’s tax on bars, restaurants and hotels -- called the bed, board and beverage tax -- also generated an increased 8 percent, or $666,000.

On tourism from the hotter parts of the state, Smith said spending time camping in the forests is not the only reason why people come to Flagstaff.

“Their primary drive is not to build a campfire, their primary drive is to get out of the heat,” Smith said.

A spokesperson for the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce said they understood the need to keep forests and the community safe, but said they were concerned for Flagstaff businesses whose income directly depends on having people in the forests.

Anthony Quintile, general manager at Absolute Bikes, acknowledged that some businesses may have had some trouble; however, for Absolute Bikes, the closures provided them the opportunity to direct people to lesser-used trails.

“It was interesting to have an excuse to send people someplace else and see that they had a lot of fun riding those trails. They’re fun trails,” Quintile said.

Bernd Conrad, courtesy 

Pictured here are Mount Elden and the Dry Lake Hills as seen from Buffalo Park and obscured by a blanket of rain clouds in June. That storm prevented additional closures of the Coconino National Forest at the time.

Flagstaff residents spend time clowning around in Russia

Earlier this month, several Flagstaff residents found themselves walking the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg alongside a 6-foot-5, 73-year-old sporting a bright blue ponytail and wearing the world’s largest men’s underwear.

They weren’t embarrassed, not even when the man asked people to jump inside the underwear and sing with him. The man was legendary doctor and social activist Patch Adams, and they were on a clown mission with him in order to help bring “joyful service” to Russian orphanages, hospitals, hospices, rehabilitation centers and special needs residences.

Patch Adams’ organization, the Gesundheit Institute, has been leading clown missions to Russia and all over the world since 1984. The nonprofit healthcare group runs on Adams’ philosophy that “laughter, joy and creativity are an integral part of the healing process,” according to its official website.

Lisa Heath, a cardiac nurse at Flagstaff Medical Center, has been going on Adams’ clown trips for six years. Heath and her husband Ron Dovzak, a dietitian, met Adams for the first time at a California performing arts and clowning camp in 2003. Their youngest son, Rumi Heath Dovzak, was 1 at the time and now works as a counselor there during his summer breaks from Flagstaff High School.

Sharon Stein, Courtesy 

Rumi Heath Dovzak, 16, poses with Patch Adams.

Previously, the family spent a week clowning in the Amazonian jungle city of Iquitos, Peru, helping with medical and mental health classes there. The November 2018 trip, however, was two weeks long, and had Heath and her son traveling through Russia with 36 clowns from 14 different countries.

Some of the other clowns on the philanthropic trip were Heath’s friend Teresa DelVecchio, a student adviser at Northern Arizona University, and Rumi’s friend Zachary Hansen, a junior at BASIS.

The outfits packed in their suitcases were far from the clothes they usually sport in Flagstaff: Rumi wore wool dress suits with patches, bright shirts and ties, while Hansen donned a smiley face beret and long fake nose with his colorful vests and bow ties. He also had his balloons on hand to make balloon animals for the kids they met at the orphanages and hospitals.

DelVecchio wore mismatched patterns of oversized or undersized garments. Heath switched out her usual scrubs for bright pinks and purples with sequins.

“My clown outfits are very flashy and very unlike me. I never liked these colors, but my clown does,” Heath said, noting that everyone has an inner clown that can be totally different than their everyday personality.

While Heath’s nursing background and penchant for helping others was useful on the trip, the type of help the clowns offered while in Russia was very different.

“As a nurse, I've always been involved in fixing something with medications, procedures, etc.,” Heath said. “Clowning gives you the opportunity to just sit sometimes and hold a hand, dance with a wheelchair-bound child or adult, play music and sing with folks without knowing the same language.”

Translators were on hand, but it wasn’t as important for the visits as one might think.

“Clowning gives you the freedom to communicate with people in many different ways. It allows you to come into a person's world,” Heath said. “At a hospice we visited, an Italian clown and I got a wheelchair-bound 94-year-old woman up, holding her on both sides, and danced with her to music being played.”

DelVecchio said that some of the disabled people in the group were still able to respond to the clown antics despite both language and physical barriers. She was reminded of some cerebral palsy patients that could barely move: “Even though they could barely look at you, there was still an acknowledgment with a squeeze of a hand or a smile.”

Music is also a universal language.

“An instrument is great for blind and deaf children to hear or feel the vibrations,” Heath said.

Heath played some ukulele while DelVecchio played the kazoo and sang. Rumi played the guitar everywhere they went, including the metro and streets.

“We sang a lot of Beatles, which the Russian people love. Singing 'Revolution' with the Red Square in the background was epic,” Heath said.

Courtesy, Sharon Stein 

Zachary Hansen and Rumi Heath Dovzak, both 16, play music in the streets of Russia.

Rumi explained that the Beatles had a big influence on the Soviet Union’s pop culture ban in the '60s. “It represented the west and a crack in the wall,” he said.

For Rumi, getting to spread joy to people in need in Russia with his music was a life-changing experience.

“Seeing the old Russian people that have lived through so much war and oppression smile and respond with laughter and joy to what you are doing is magical; it is powerful,” he said.

Rumi is now making up all the work he missed from the time off at FHS, but he said it’s worth it.

“School is important and all, but you just can’t pass up an opportunity like this,” he said.

Clowning is still hard work, too, even if it is a blast, Rumi added. The group rushed around visiting two facilities a day for two weeks.

For Heath, the most rewarding part of the trip was also the most challenging. “When you put on a red nose, you bring down the social boundaries -- walls, if you like -- and open up a dialogue of smiles and love," she said. "It fills you with hope for the world." But to be constantly “on” all the time and so exposed is exhausting at the end of the day, she added.

Heath added that sharing laughter with the Russians and making new friends created an atmosphere of understanding. “Our issues and history aren't about the people but about governments and power,” she said.

Sharon Stein, Courtesy 

The group of 36 clowns posing outside Catherine's Palace near St. Petersburg.

DelVecchio also noted that a lack of free speech that some of the Russians have experienced growing up made the clowning even more powerful. “You could see in their faces that they loved this kind of free-form goofiness that we were laying out there,” she said.

This was DelVecchio’s first clown trip, and she hopes to bring some of what she learned back to the workplace at NAU, where she is an adviser for biology students.

“I work in an atmosphere where stress levels can really climb high, and if I can try to bring a smile and a laugh to that stressed-out person that is all for the better,” she said.

Additionally, DelVecchio hopes to pass a message on to her students who plan to go into medical school: “Laughter is indeed the best medicine.”

Utilities encourage energy savings with smart thermostats

NEW YORK — As temperatures drop and winter looms, homeowners and property managers are sweeping chimneys, insulating pipes and swapping screens for storm windows.

They're also going beyond traditional winterizing by installing smart thermostats and home energy monitors aiming to lower utility bills.

Smart thermostats — which let consumers adjust their home temperatures remotely using any internet-connected device — are among the most popular smart home technologies, generating $1.3 billion in sales globally in 2017, according to Navigant Research. Some models use geofencing technology and multiple sensors placed throughout the house to adjust temperatures in individual rooms when a resident walks in, maximizing comfort and efficiency.

Just how much consumers can save by installing smart thermostats — which generally range in price from $150 to $250 — depends on a variety of factors, but Nest, one of the most popular smart thermostat companies, estimates users can save $131 to $145 on their energy bills per year.

Customers can save more if their local utility offers rebates or discounts for allowing the utility to occasionally turn their thermostats up or down, as long as consumers are willing.

Many utilities are offering heavy discounts on smart thermostats in exchange for enrolling in so-called "demand response" programs, which let utilities periodically reduce customers' electricity usage so they're not demanding as much energy from the grid, said Dan Wroclawski of Consumer Reports.

"When you join a demand response program, you usually get some sort of rebates, and the best deals we saw were bill credits that happen annually," Wroclawski said. "When you agree to these programs you are ceding some level of control. But if it's bothering you — if you're too cold or too hot — all you have to do is go up to the thermostat and turn it up or down and the demand response program will essentially just realize, ok, they're ignoring us."

Nationwide, nearly 1.4 million customers are enrolled in programs that allow utilities to turn their thermostats up or down, and more than 40 utilities with thermostat programs took advantage and adjusted customers' temperatures about 8 times per year, according to the Smart Electric Power Alliance. But people sometimes opt out of the programs when, for example, it's a very hot day and they don't want their air conditioning turned down -- and that's the exact time utilities need people to stick with the program.

Some utilities have similar programs that allow them to temporarily turn off customers' electric water heaters, and they find customers are less likely to opt out of those scenarios because they don't really notice an impact.

Other utilities are offering "time of use" or hourly rate programs, which encourage customers to run dishwashers or other appliances at times of day when electricity rates are cheaper.

White House expresses 'disappointment,' 'anger' at GM

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump tested the limits of his presidential authority and political muscle as he threatened Tuesday to cut off all federal subsidies to General Motors because of its planned massive cutbacks in the U.S.

Trump unloaded on Twitter a day after GM announced it would shutter five plants and slash 14,000 jobs in North America. Many of the job cuts would affect the Midwest, the politically crucial region where the president promised a manufacturing rebirth. It was the latest example of the president's willingness to attempt to meddle in the affairs of private companies and to threaten the use of government power to try to force their business decisions.

"Very disappointed with General Motors and their CEO, Mary Barra, for closing plants in Ohio, Michigan and Maryland" while sparing plants in Mexico & China, Trump tweeted, adding: "The U.S. saved General Motors, and this is the THANKS we get!"

Trump's tweets followed a short time after National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said the White House's reaction to the automaker's announcement was "a tremendous amount of disappointment, maybe even spilling over into anger." Kudlow, who met with Barra on Monday, said Trump felt betrayed by GM.

"Look, we made this deal, we've worked with you along the way, we've done other things with mileage standards, for example, and other related regulations," Kudlow said, referencing the recently negotiated U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. "We've done this to help you and I think his disappointment is, it seems like they kind of turned their back on him."

The White House rebuke appears to fly in the face of long-held Republican opposition to picking winners and losers in the marketplace. A day earlier, Trump issued a vague threat to GM warning it to preserve a key plant in the presidential bellwether state of Ohio, where the company has marked its Lordstown plant for closure.

"That's Ohio, and you better get back in there soon," he said.

It's not clear precisely what action against GM might be taken, or when, and there are questions about whether the president has the authority to act without congressional approval.

Buyers of electric vehicles made by GM and other automakers get federal tax credits of up to $7,500, helping to reduce the price as an incentive to get more of the zero-emissions vehicles on the road. But GM is on the cusp of reaching its subsidy limit.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she did not have any additional information on the president's threat.

Trump has long promised to return manufacturing jobs to the United States and particularly the Midwest. At a rally near GM's Lordstown plant last summer, Trump told people not to sell their homes because the jobs are "all coming back."

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, GM tried to appease the Trump administration while at the same time justifying the decisions it announced Monday. "We appreciate the actions this administration has taken on behalf of industry to improve the overall competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing," the statement said.

Many of the workers who will lose jobs if the plants close could transfer to another GM factory where production is being increased, spokesman Patrick Morrissey said. For instance, GM plans to add hundreds of workers at its pickup truck assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, Morrissey said. Workers also will be added at an SUV factory in Arlington, Texas.

But those expansions aren't enough to accommodate all of the roughly 3,300 U.S. factory workers who could lose their jobs.

GM said it has invested more than $22 billion in U.S. operations since 2009, when it exited bankruptcy protection.

Trump has made direct negotiation with business leaders a centerpiece of his administration, including talks with defense contractor CEOs on bringing down prices on new systems, including the upcoming replacement to the aircraft that serves as Air Force One. He has never been shy about voicing his frustration with their decisions.

GM's attempt to close the factories still has to be negotiated with the United Auto Workers union, which has promised to fight them legally and in collective bargaining.

The factory announcements likely represented GM's opening bid in contract talks with the union that start next year, said Kristen Dziczek, vice president of labor and industry with the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The factories slated for closure could get new products in exchange for items the company wants from the union, she said.

Keeping open a plant slated for closure is not without precedent for GM. In 2009, for instance, GM announced that it intended to close a huge assembly plant in Orion Township, Michigan, north of Detroit. But it later negotiated concessions from the union and reopened the plant to build the Chevrolet Sonic subcompact car. The factory is still in operation and now builds the Sonic and the Bolt electric car.

The reductions could amount to as much as 8 percent of GM's global workforce of 180,000 employees.