As part of a statewide tour, Senator Martha McSally visited Flagstaff on Friday, speaking with local leaders.
With Mayor Coral Evans, Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott and several members of the Flagstaff Fire Department, the senator toured areas of the Coconino National Forest on the Dry Lake Hills that are part of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project.
McSally told the Daily Sun she was impressed with the project and that the federal government needed to increase the support and ease for which forest restoration projects were completed.
“Really, kudos to Flagstaff for stepping up as a city to make the decision to invest in areas outside the city limits, because this is so important to really set this example,” McSally said.
One of the issues these restoration projects have in Arizona and across the country is how the Forest Service is viewing them financially, McSally said.
McSally said the Forest Service needs to stop looking at these forest restoration efforts simply as costly projects, because if restoration efforts are not conducted, the fire risk is even more costly.
“[These fires have massive] impacts on the water, the economic impact and all that. So an ounce of prevention and investment, there is value, not just in the timber, but there is value in managing the forest,” McSally said.
Extending the length of the contracts offered by the agency to logging companies from 10 to 20 years would help that, McSally said, making the projects more predictable and thus more sustainable for private business.
McSally said she also hopes the agency can find a way to speed up some of these forest restoration projects, although addressing that may not require an act of Congress.
“Instead, it’s [the National Forests'] policies and mindset and approach to these projects that need to change. We have oversight of those federal agencies, so we're going to continue to follow up and engage with them,” McSally said, suggesting that even if the Forest Service doesn’t change policy nationwide, they could find a new way of thinking on some of these projects.
McSally said she also learned a lot from Mayor Evans about the city’s challenges when it comes to new infrastructure, primarily regarding the Rio de Flag flood control project.
The project, which has been in the works for almost 15 years, is meant to prevent damage in the case of a large, once-in-a-lifetime flood event.
“This is so important, I mean the livelihood of this community would be devastated should it be flooded,” McSally said.
The senator said the need for infrastructure has also come up over and over again throughout her tour of the state, especially the need for a streamlined process when local governments are looking for federal help with such costly projects.
And the issue of more consistent federal funding for capital works projects is something else she has heard from many locals across the state.
The Rio de Flag project is one example of this. Although the final design plans are set to be completed this year, the Army Corps’ funding may be cut by 31 percent by the Trump Administration's proposed budget, putting the future of the flood control project at risk.
“In general the responsiveness of federal agencies was a point of feedback,” McSally Said. “Whether you’re dealing with FEMA or the Forest Service or the Park Service, just responsiveness on important projects and the timelines of these projects is of great frustration to local leaders.”
“It’s ridiculous that it takes decades,” McSally said.
Work on the flood control project represents a continuation of collaboration between McSally at a federal level and Mayor Evans working locally, McSally said. The senator previously worked on the new veterans home to be built on McMillan Mesa.
“We’re really excited to see that that’s come through,” McSally said.
Evans said she “really appreciates our senator’s willingness to spend the greater part of a day and understand the local challenges we face.”
She added that she and some members of Flagstaff City Council will also have the opportunity to speak with McSally as well as Senator Kyrsten Sinema as they travel to Washington, D.C., this week.
The senator was also asked about issues of uranium mining in northern Arizona.
When it comes to the problem of abandoned uranium mines on tribal land, many of which continue to pose a threat to residents of the state and tribes, McSally said the issue has not come up during her tour of the state so far, but that every community has unique issues and she will be happy to learn more about the topic.