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Barbara Bruce / Photo by Deb Vaughn  

Mule deer by Silver Creek in Snowflake. Resident Deb Vaughn said seeing these deer brought a lot of joy to people during the holidays. She still sees them on her way home from work, but says they are out other times as well. Vaughn says she thinks they have made Snowflake their home. Add those to the census.

ACA grant will help make broadband connections

NAVAJO & APACHE COUNTIES — The Arizona Commerce Authority has awarded a grant to help string a high-speed, fiber optic line that could help reduce the chance of outages in the White Mountains.

The project grant of up to $1 million will go to Sparklight, formerly Cable One. The company is already laying a new, high-speed line from Heber down to Payson, which could ultimately reduce the risk of outages in the White Mountains.

Sparklight partnered with the MHA Foundation in Payson to string the new line, which can carry up to 2 gigabytes per second. The MHA Foundation provided some $2 million to get the project started, which means it is “shovel ready,” one of the requirements for the state construction grant, which has a cap of $1 million. The company will have to front the money, with payment coming later from the state.

If the Sparklight line is connected to the existing CenturyLink line running from Phoenix to Payson through Camp Verde, the new line could also complete a loop to provide redundant service to the area. If that happens, the region would be largely freed from the prolonged outages that have hampered businesses and economic development.

Both the Apache County and Navajo County oficials have said redundant, high-speed internet connections are crucial to economic development – both to lure new businesses and attract “telecommuters” – who can live in rural areas but remain connected to freelancing and “gig economy” jobs in urban areas.

In addition, the federal government has provided millions in added funding to string new, high-speed lines to schools and libraries, including many in Navajo and Apache counties.

Currently, Arizona Public Service (APS) plans to string a line on existing power poles from Phoenix to its coal-fired power plant near Joseph City – between Holbrook and Winslow. That line could also connect to both the new Sparklight line as well as the existing network in the White Mountains. The communities of the White Mountains mostly sit at the end of a one-way line, which means a break in the line anywhere between the White Mountains and Phoenix can produce a long outage.

If Sparklight can complete the new line and connect to the APS line, a break on one part of the line would instantly re-route the signal to the other part of the loop, preventing an outage while the break is repaired.

Gila County has launched an effort to determine whether it could play a role in spreading the signal from such new, high-speed lines throughout the region. Other cities have done that to increase the speed and reliability of the internet network that has become increasingly vital to economic development – especially in currently underserved rural areas.

The Sparklight project is already underway, with plans to connect Payson to the existing network in the White Mountains later this year.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Concho woman charged for animal cruelty

APACHE COUNTY — On Jan. 6, 2020, Apache County resident Denise Blackwood, 45, was charged in the St. Johns Justice Court with 10 felonies alleging animal cruelty. She is presumed by law to be innocent.

The events which led up to the charges allegedly occurred between Aug. 27, and Oct. 21, 2019, in Concho. There, Apache County deputies on Oct. 21 reportedly found dead one mastiff-type dog that an officer said he recognized as belonging to Blackwood, another small dog dead in a wire kennel, five dead dogs in a steel Connex-type container, a skeleton of a small dog under boxes, two dead rabbits, one dead goat and one goat still alive. If convicted, Blackwood could receive years in prison.

Police have had contact with Blackwood before at different locations, and the prior contacts all appear to involve dead or neglected animals. For example, on March 3, 2018, St. Johns Police responded to Blackwood’s call to them to report a missing male goose and a dead female goose. The dead goose had a broken neck. She told the officer that there were no suspects or witnesses, “but she needed a police report for her insurance,” according to a police report. Police closed the case.

Then, in January, 2019, a resident reported to police that he had seen “4 or 5 deceased dogs and several more that were injured,” at a different address in Apache County according to a police report.

Apache County deputies responded and discovered a hellish scene. There were five dead dogs still on their restraints, seven other restrained living dogs, three of them had neck injuries caused by the skinny ropes around their necks. There was also one horse who “appeared very frail from malnutrition,” and a “calf having a severely swollen abdomen,” according to the report. No one was home, the animals did not have food or water and very little shelter. The police contacted the appropriate animal authorities and swore out a search warrant from the Round Valley Justice Court.

Then the person who originally called police called again to say that a vehicle which he had seen coming and going from the property was broken down in the area. Police traced the license plate to a post office box in Concho and based on a tip, went to a retail store in Concho where Blackwood worked and spoke with her. According to the police report from the January, 2019 incident, Blackwood “stated that she bought the property from an LLC out of state and was planning to build an off-grid residence there.”


She said that she was aware of the animals there and went to the property once a week to care for them and that they were all alive last time she was there. The deputy thought that was strange considering that there were signs of food being dumped on the ground in the pens in which the live animals were kept in, but the pens containing the deceased dogs didn’t have traces of food. The officer wrote that “shows that she was aware of the deceased dogs because she made the cognitive choice to not place food in their pens.” She was arrested for eight counts of cruel mistreatment and five counts of neglect or abandonment of animals.

But the January, 2019 case went nowhere. Charges were not filed — not yet anyway. The statute of limitations in Arizona gives authorities seven years to file charges in this type of felony. Then the October call came in.

Apparently, in October 2019, Blackwood had been renting the Concho home from which the formal 10 charge arose. It’s a different property than the location of the January incident.

The landlady for the Concho rental property had asked a male friend to go out to the property because Blackwood hadn’t paid rent in two months and may have moved. There, deputies found the scene described above which resulted in the 10 charges. Once again, officers visited Blackwood at yet another address, this time, at a residence on Short Lane.

According to that agency’s report, Blackwood said that she didn’t live at the rental property anymore and claimed that she was unaware of any animals still there. That when she moved, she had given them all to unidentified persons on Craigslist or Facebook. She claimed that she actually has seen pictures of her animals with their new owners and she can’t help it if some of the new owners never came to get theirs, or brought animals back to that property without her knowledge.

What about the mastiff? the deputy asked. Blackwood said some guy named Mike from the Valley took the mastiff. The deputy believes that wasn’t true considering that the mastiff was found dead along with the other dogs, rabbits and goat. The report indicates a bodycam was used to record her interview. She was then arrested again and booked into the Apache County Jail.

In yet another twist, the court date scheduled after her October arrest was vacated, it seems the county attorney wasn’t quite ready to charge her at the time. Charges were filed through an amended complaint this month.

Her next court date is Jan. 22.

Sen Allen's sex ed bill pulled from consideration

ARIZONA — A a controversial bill to limit sex education classes proposed by Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake) this week was pulled — at least for now.

The bill would have not only continued the current stress on abstinence-only sex education, but added new components trying to convince teens to ‘return to abstinence” if they had become sexually active.

SB 1082 would also have prohibited any sex education before the seventh grade while stressing “sexual risk avoidance rather than sexual risk reduction.”

Senate President Karen Fann pulled the bill on Tuesday, saying it needed work. It’s unclear whether Sen. Allen will at some point reintroduce the bill. Fann said lawmakers hope for a quick session in an election year, which would mean avoiding divisive bills prior to the August primary.

Sen. Allen accused Senate leaders of cowardice for trying to avoid controversy in an election year, according to a report by Capital News Service. She then went ahead and took testimony before the Education Committee from parents unhappy with the current law — while other groups demonstrated outside the capital.

The bill spurred a strong reaction from an array of groups, some of them citing the state’s high teen birth and sexual disease rates.

Research shows that abstinence-only programs might increase teen birth rates and sexually transmitted disease rates. Sen. Allen’s district includes Gila, Apache and Navajo counties, with among the highest rates of teen pregnancy and teen sexually transmitted disease in the state.

Current law requires parental permission before students attend any kind of sex education class. The restrictions on sex education programs (opt-in)have sharply limited those programs throughout the state. Allen has previously said she grew concerned about sex education when the state school board briefly considered expanding the existing curriculum, with materials Allen said bordered on the pornographic.

The teen birthrate in the US in 2017 was 24.7 per 1,000 girls (ages 15-19). That compares to an Arizona teen birthrate of 30 per 1,000. Gila County had the highest teen birthrate in the state at 55 per 1,000 girls. Navajo County was close behind at 49 per 1,000 and Apache County came in at 41 per 1,000, both far higher than the state or national average.

Allen’s proposed tightening of restrictions on sex education drew mixed reviews, dimming its prospects for passage.

Sen. Victoria Steele (D-Tucson) has proposed a bill that would require parents to opt out of sex education classes for their children in any grade, replacing the current law that requires parent permission to enroll a student in such a class. Republicans control both Houses and last year almost no Democratic-sponsored bills made it out of committee – much less to the floor of either house.

Allen’s bill spurred quick criticism from some groups. The reaction prompted her to put out a statement saying she would remove language that referred to homosexuality.

Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer 

Foes of legislation to restrict the teaching of sex ed in public schools rally Monday at the Capitol.

ProgressNow Arizona, a progressive advocacy group, put out a release opposing SB 1082 because it “would purposefully make it too difficult for any school district to provide a safe and healthy form of sexual education. This bill is part of Sylvia Allen’s agenda to distract voters from the GOP’s failure to actually properly fund schools.”

Debate has swirled around effective sex education programs for decades.

Public health officials warn that although sexual activity among teens has fallen in recent years, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease and date rape, sexual coercion and sexual harassment remain serious problems.

The prevalence of sex education rose steadily starting with the threat of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, but peaked in the late 1990s, according to a summary of the research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health and posted on the National Institutes of Health website. The former approach generally cautioned teens against sex, but also stressed the benefits of birth control and condoms in reducing both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Starting in the late 1990s, many states and school districts shifted to an “abstinence only” approach – urging teens to avoid all sexual behavior before marriage.

A decade of research mostly concluded the abstinence-only approach may have increased teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease rates, without reducing teen sexual behavior, according to many studies cited in the journal article. Nonetheless, most federal funding supports abstinence-only approaches, which often exclude any discussion of birth control.

A national study by the Guttmacher Institute found that while 37 states require the provision of abstinence information, only 33 provide information about AIDS and only 13 provide information about contraception. Only 13 require “medically accurate” information.

The federal Centers for Disease Control found that high schools offer on average 6 hours of instruction of human sexuality, including less than four hours on sexually transmitted disease or teen pregnancy. About 90 percent require parental notification and allow parents to keep their students out of those classes.

According to the National Institute of Health a study that compared teen pregnancy rates in states with an “abstinence-only” curriculum to states with a comprehensive curriculum, which included information about birth control, sexual harassment, decision making, peer pressure and other issues found statistically higher birth teen birth rates in the “abstinence-only states.”

Meanwhile, the evidence has grown that the biggest sexual problem facing teens remains date rape and sexual harassment.

One survey published on the National Institutes of Health web site concluded that girls in their teens are four times as likely to face sexual assault as older women, including date rape.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com