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Changes to Amtrak's Southwest Chief could mean fewer visitors to Flagstaff

Flagstaff could see fewer tourist dollars coming through the city if proposed changes to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route go into effect.

Amtrak announced plans last week to truncate the Southwest Chief rail route and replace part of it with a bus trip. The trains on the route, which travel from Los Angeles to Chicago, would not run between Albuquerque and Dodge City, Kansas, where they would be replaced with buses.

But this could drastically reduce the number of people who use the Southwest Chief route, said Roger Clark, a member of All Aboard Arizona, a nonprofit that advocates for protecting and expanding passenger railways.

This is because, according to a report jointly released by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association and the Rail Passengers Association, 63 percent of trips taken on the Southwest Chief route are 750 miles long or more.

For every transfer that a passenger must go make, ridership can take a substantial hit. This means if the changes go through, Flagstaff could see far fewer people coming into the city via the train.

And the city may feel this more than most, said city councilmember Jim McCarthy. The Flagstaff Amtrak Station is the busiest in the state, with more people getting on or off in Flagstaff than anywhere else. Since the Amtrak station in Williams closed in January, anyone wanting to visit the Grand Canyon has to disembark in Flagstaff.

In fiscal year 2016, the city saw 41,053 passengers go through the downtown Amtrak station, either leaving or arriving.

“It’s an important part of our multimodal transportation network and economically important,” said McCarthy via phone, adding that these changes amount to “cutting the heart out of the route.”

McCarthy said on top of affecting the city, the changes may also affect him on a more personal level as he often uses the service to visit family in the Northwest.

And the train offers a different kind of travel than planes or cars. His trip to Seattle, McCarthy said, is two days of total relaxation where there is nothing to do but look at the scenery, read, sleep, eat and chat with neighbors on the train

Train stations are also often situated in the middle of a town, making them very accessible and they can be far easier to use for those who are older or have disabilities.

In May, Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans sent a letter to the new CEO of Amtrak, Richard Anderson, over concerns that Amtrak was “trying to dismantle itself from the inside,” and that this would have a negative impact on Flagstaff.

A similar letter was sent to Anderson from a bipartisan group of senators from New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas, also in May.

Since Anderson became CEO in January, Amtrak immediately closed numerous smaller stations across the country and stopped serving hot meals on a number of long-distance routes.

At the same time, Amtrak has also announced that it did not want to pay the $3 million they had originally promised for repairs and renovations on the Southwest Chief route. The money being put forward by Amtrak would have been matched by a $16 million federal transportation infrastructure grant won by Colfax County, New Mexico.

Many more dollars have been raised by state and even municipal governments to pay for repairs, said Clark.

These cuts fly in the face of a budget appropriation by Congress that is far larger than normal at $1.3 billion. In the first draft of the federal budget, the Trump administration actually moved to defund Amtrak but Congress seemed to specifically grant the organization more funding than usual.

The changes are a product of shifting priorities on the part of Amtrak. The organization has long said their bread basket is in the Northeast transit corridor while they lose money on the longer western routes, and Anderson is going all-in on this line of thinking, Clark said.

Many of these transit corridors have long been ignored by Amtrak and putting more money into these corridors make sense, Clark said, but this doesn’t mean Amtrak should be cutting service to most of the country.

“They just don’t seem to care about the rest of the U.S.,” said Clark, adding that long-distance routes are essentially transit corridors that are strung together.

This may especially affect small rural western communities, in which the train may be the only major form of mass transit in or out.

If the changes go through, they will likely be implemented by the end of the year.

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Flagstaff code helps fortify structures against wildfire

A decade ago, the Flagstaff City Council approved a new addition to the city's regulations: the Wildland Urban Interface Code. Adopted in February 2008, the code was one more line of defense in the ongoing efforts to address the city’s key vulnerability: wildfire.

The language lays out requirements for using fire-resistant building materials, clearing fuels away from homes and designing neighborhoods for water and fire engine access.

Ten years later, the code has proven itself highly effective, according to city staff. The 2010 fire near Little America is one example among many of firefighters being able to corral potentially disastrous fires thanks to structures and neighborhoods that made themselves compliant with the code, said Paul Summerfelt, the city’s wildland fire management officer.

Flagstaff is still one of only a few cities in the state and the country that have such a code, said Jerolyn Byrne, the Wildland FireWise Specialist for the city of Flagstaff who works closely with the set of regulations. That's even as the fire season has gotten longer and the number of acres burned nationally by wildfire has ballooned, with an increase of nearly 1,200 percent in the Southwest alone since the early 1970s, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Here’s what else you need to know about Flagstaff's Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, Code:


The code requires developments to have adequate water supply and pressure for firefighting efforts and to have streets that allow for fire engines to enter, turn around and exit. It has standards for fire-resistant building materials and vegetation management guidelines about thinning trees and reducing burnable fuels near a home, Byrne said. 

It also gives “more teeth” to the city’s ability to impose fire restrictions, Byrne said.

The code applies to any buildings in Flagstaff constructed after March 2008, though it is less restrictively applied to properties in the core of the city that aren’t as close to the forest, she said.


Homeowners are responsible for keeping their properties up to code, Byrne said.

City response or enforcement actions are generally complaint-based or will be spurred if staff are working on broader wildfire mitigation in an area and notice a home isn’t compliant, Byrne said.

The code can also apply to homes built before 2008 if they are deemed to be an extreme public safety hazard with multiple violations, she said.

The city initially tries to gain compliance through education before pursuing legal actions.

In newer neighborhoods with homeowners associations, the WUI code will often be included and enforced through the association’s covenants, conditions and restrictions, Byrne said.

While residents have generally done a good job in complying with the regulations, second homeowners seem to be slower to respond if their property needs cleaning up, she said.


Byrne said she’s in the process of reviewing the most recent version of the international WUI code, which Flagstaff amended to create its own version. The city is considering adopting that most recent international code, but first Byrne is looking for any elements that may need to be changed to improve it at the local level. That could include adopting higher standards for creating defensible space around structures and using more advanced fire-resistant building materials, she said.


Coconino County has not adopted a WUI code, but its draft subdivision ordinance requires a design that aligns with the national FireWise program, according to Jay Christelman, director of community development. That voluntary program includes elements like forest thinning, creating defensible space around a structure and cleaning away pine needles or other debris.

In areas where it’s needed, the county’s planning and zoning commission requires conditional use applications to include a plan for forest management and tree thinning, Christelman said in an email.


The city’s mandatory WUI code complements the voluntary FireWise program that has been adopted by several local neighborhoods in and around Flagstaff, Byrne said.

In the case of both, there is power in numbers.

“We're not going to be completely fire safe. That is not a reality,” Byrne said. “But there are ways you can certainly reduce the possibility of wildfire impacting your home. And once you do it and your neighbors do it, it’s a domino effect, a collective protective action in the community."

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Hit the trail: Two cool caves for a hot summer

Editor's note: Although major parts of four northern Arizona forests are closed, there still plenty of trails and other outdoor destinations open in greater Flagstaff. Following are two trip reports from a decade ago by Seth Muller on some caves just outside the city.

Lava River Cave

As an oven-like, inescapable heat hung above the forest floor, I pulled on a heavy-duty sweatshirt and slid a wool knit cap over my head. The sweat soaked into it immediately.

I prepared to enter the cool depths of Lava River Cave, often identified as the Flagstaff area ultimate cool spot.

The mouth of the cave — a short walk from the parking area — opens out of the forest floor. It's surrounded by a low, stone wall and some hints of cooler air whispering through the heat lure visitors inside.

I clicked on my Eveready plastic flashlight and moved inward, and down, as the daylight faded behind me. The hike started with a downhill climb, at times a near crawl. Wet and even icy rocks made the early steps into the cave daunting.

With my pupils seemingly dilated to the size of quarters, I became accustomed to the darkness and the idea of being several feet underground. I marveled at the cave's dark and eerie walls, and stopped occasionally to rub my arms and warm up. I did enjoy exhaling into the flashlight beam to see my condensed breath. It was a neat effect considering the air temperature above ground exceeded 90 degrees.

Although the cold darkness of the cave chilled me, it was formed from the hottest substance on Earth — lava. The temperature of lava can run about 2,150 degrees Fahrenheit, which, admittedly, is only a few degrees warmer than black asphalt under a Phoenix summer sun.

I spotted the two basic kinds of lava inside the cave, the sharp and jagged 'a'a (ah-ah) and the smooth and ropy pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy). My favorite rock name ever, 'a'a comes from the native Hawaiians who came up with the moniker to describe the cries of people who walked on it barefoot. Now, geologists use it as the formation's official name. I swear I am not making this up.

The cooling and formation of lava rock appears in all forms in the cave, making it a top geological attraction in the region. The cave is, in fact, a lava tube that happens to be nearly a mile in length. It also has a place where the tube splits and goes in two different directions.

Generally, tubes form when hot, fluid lava breaks through a cooled, crusty top layer and drains out.

Lava formations are unlike most other rock formations because they occur quickly and instantaneously, often arriving on the surface following a fit of violence.

The violent fits of volcanoes are all too familiar to Hawaiians, who once attributed the eruptions to the impatient and tempestuous goddess Pele (there's no easily identifiable link to the famous soccer player). Her name remained on the lips of many native Hawaiians long after they abandoned their gods when American missionaries arrived on the islands of 1820.

Apparently, those who live on an island with an active volcano hedge their bets when it comes to abandoning a belief system with a volcano goddess in it.

What's amazing about Lava River Cave, aside from the heat and violence that formed it, is that chunks of its ceiling broke and fell into the molten lava as it cooled, forming ripples on the cave's floor. It's a trick to find it with the flashlight, but those who do not rush it will discover them.

This is because Lava River Cave is not a place of crystals, towering stalagmites or sharp and descending stalactites. Its beauty lies more in the subtle than in the obvious, as the dark rocks have a story to tell when caught by the flashlight.

Old Caves Crater

About three years ago, I discovered Old Caves Crater on a whim. I had spread out my Emmitt Barks Flagstaff Trails Map and I looked for a fairly short uphill hike to take between my required weekend activities and chores. I spotted Old Caves Crater and its trail on the map.

I had heard of it, but tended to forget it was there. It lies outside of the trails of the San Francisco Peaks, and it is not part of the main line of urban trails or the ones on and around Mount Elden. Old Caves Crater itself rises above Doney Park almost at its center — an island in the residential landscape that covers the flatlands north and east of Flagstaff.

The crater formed as a cinder cone that built up in recent geologic years as part of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. The Coconino National Forest trail starts off Silver Saddle Road several hundred yards south of the crater's base. I began the hike on the crushed volcanic cinders of the trail, which moved through new- growth ponderosa pines. Although the trail has a 500-foot elevation gain along its 1.3 miles, the trail begins flat. That doesn't last long.

On that first hike, I flared my nostrils and I took in the vanilla smell of the pines. Although I moved uphill, I hiked out of the ponderosa pines and into a pinyon-juniper forest, the reverse of the usual. Ancient and twisted alligator junipers hunkered along the trail. They are one of my favorite trees, so I took time to study their studded bark and sensual curves.

Before I had a chance to pick up a better pace, I reached a T in the trail near the top of the crater. To the left was the summit. To the right was the side trail to the caves. I went right and followed the side trail a few hundred feet to the end. I stood at a 270-degree viewpoint, with most of Doney Park to the east and south and Elden and the Peaks to the southwest and west. As I ventured to the edge, I looked out and not down — until I caught a glance of a gaping mouth in the earth. I noticed the openings all around, the remains of a lava tube.

Without hesitation, I dropped down inside of one. I had heard of these pit caves. They are part of a living complex once occupied by ancient Sinaguans about 800 years ago. The Sinagua people carved out small portals in the basalt supposedly to create storage rooms.

I pulled myself through some of the small passageways. On the first attempt, I bashed my knee on a chunk of lava rock as I tried to enter one of the rooms. Then, I fell to one side and stirred up the fine volcanic dust on the room's floor. Above me, the sunbeams caught the dust as it danced and swirled. Against my better judgment, I continued to explore. I squirmed into another room, but I scuffed my hands and thumped my head and I tried to straighten my body.

Luckily, I did not have to return the same way. Another, larger opening led back in the direction I came. I sat and I took in the space. Light glowed from other rooms. In the cave, a primitive sense took over. I could pretend that civilization did not surround this crater summit. I could connect with ancestors who considered this kind of space shelter, a perfect home.

With all of the hikes I have made to Old Caves, I enter the rooms, only to surface to linger and soak in the view while I nose around for pottery sherds. Many of them litter the land around the ruin.

I walk around the perimeter and daydream of the time this once served as someone's home. The choice appeared strategic. I squinted my eyes and tried to imagine bison and elk herds. I thought of the closest civilization 800 years ago - Wupatki to the north, a few days walk.

I begin my trek back to the trailhead — but with knowledge of a place to escape not far from the modern day fringes.

If You Go …

Take Highway 89 northbound. About three miles north of the Flagstaff Mall, make a right onto Silver Saddle Road. Go about a mile and the trailhead and parking is on the left.

Information: Peaks Ranger District (928) 526-0866 or visit

Kevin Hagen,AP Photo  

Arizona's Deandre Ayton, center, is introduced before the NBA Draft in New York alongside stepfather Alvin and mother Andrea.

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Operation Streamline: A look at federal prosecutions of illegal border crossers

TUCSON -- The separation of 2,300 families after illegal border crossings has made headlines across the country. But the criminal prosecutions that led to many of those separations may be unfamiliar to most people.

In Tucson and elsewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border, the fast-track prosecution program known as Operation Streamline is essential to the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, as it was for the Bush and Obama administrations.

An average of 12,400 people went through Streamline in Tucson in each of the past five years, court records show. And the total for the first eight months of this fiscal year was already more than 10,000.

Streamline prosecutions unfold through seemingly choreographed movements by defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, interpreters, U.S. marshals and Border Patrol agents. Those movements have been repeated most weekdays for the past decade on the second floor of the federal courthouse in downtown Tucson.

Shoulder-high stacks of court files

The start of Streamline hearings is marked by the sound of dozens of shackles being removed behind a door on the right-hand side of the courtroom.

Over the next two hours, 10 groups of seven people emerge from the door, which is guarded by at least one deputy marshal and a Border Patrol agent. A woman from the Mexican consulate usually sits in the front row by the door and chats with the agent.

The groups stand before a magistrate judge and each person pleads guilty to crossing the border illegally.

As each group is led out of the courtroom by deputy marshals, a federal prosecutor quietly removes a stack of papers from manila folders and slides them to the right side of his desk. By the end of each hearing, the stack reaches up to his shoulder.

Among the cases held in the manila folders at a recent hearing was that of a man caught crossing the border illegally near Nogales with his 16-year-old son. He told the magistrate judge they crossed the border because violent gangs in Guatemala were trying to recruit his son and had given their final warning.

The next day, a defense lawyer said his client crossed the border with her child. But they were separated by the Border Patrol hours before the hearing and she did not know where her child was.

Thousands more are sentenced to prison and exit through the door without saying anything more than “yes,” “no,” and “guilty.”

Appearance in court

The vast majority of Streamline defendants are men arrested a day or two before they appear in court. They appear before the judge in the clothes they were wearing when they were arrested, as opposed to the orange jumpsuits worn at Streamline hearings in Texas.

In Tucson, most appear wearing jeans, T-shirts and polo shirts mangled by the dayslong desert trek. Others wear Western-style button-down shirts tucked into their jeans.

Some wear soccer jerseys, including one man who sported the red-and-blue vertical stripes of Barcelona, and a Guatemalan man who wore a black-and-neon green jersey.

Others wear hunting camouflage pants and jackets, which often appear in surveillance videos and photographs of illegal border crossers in remote areas of Southern Arizona.

They wear headphones so the interpreter can explain what the judge is saying to them, although some try to respond in English. They answer the judge’s questions by speaking into microphones while their defense lawyers, who are paid by the court, stand behind them.

Language issues

Most days, a handful of people will give the wrong reply to the judge, such as answering “guilty” when the judge asks if they understand their rights. When they obviously do not understand what they are supposed to say, the judge tells their lawyer to take them aside and explain the process again.

One roadblock to communicating is the fact that some defendants speak indigenous dialects and their limited Spanish abilities raise concerns they are not understanding their rights and what is happening to them.

When the docket is full, which is most days lately, each lawyer has about five clients and meets with them between 9 a.m. and noon. They tell them the charges they face, the rights they give up by pleading guilty, and how long they will spend in prison.

At the afternoon hearing, the judge reads off a list of the rights they’re giving up and asks if they are entering their plea voluntarily.

Magistrate judges rotate weekly and each one has their own style. Some keep their comments crisp and concise, while others take great pains to repeat everything for each defendant.

On Friday, court personnel from Southern California, where Streamline will start soon, attended the Streamline hearing in Tucson. Local magistrate judges took turns presiding over groups of defendants and showing their own style.

Elsewhere in the gallery, groups of students from across the country regularly attend Streamline hearings to get a sense of how the border functions. And volunteers with the End Streamline Coalition diligently jot down case details, as they have done for years.