A1 A1
Eight more horses found dead

HEBER/OVERGAARD – Eight more horses from the Heber Wild Horse herd were found dead on the Black Mesa Ranger District of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests on Friday, Jan. 10 according to a news release issued by the Forest Service on Saturday. “Preliminary information indicated the horses’ deaths were caused by gunshot wounds,” confirms the release.

The horses were also said to be found “outside of the Heber Wild Horse Territory,” but the exact location where the horses were found was not identified. At this time, it is unclear if the eight horses were part of one band or how long they had been dead.

This brings the total of horses found dead since 2018 to 27. Based on Saturday’s press release and the ones issued last spring by the Forest Service, the bodies of 19 Heber Wild Horses contain evidence of gunshot wounds.

Laura Singleton/The Independent  

A Heber Wild Horse mare and yearling take a leisurely walk through the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, stopping to enjoy patches of sunshine.

Some of those found last year were “too severely decomposed to determine the cause of death and one was found to have died of a possible motor vehicle collision,” according to the 2019 press releases.

In addition to the confirmed Heber Wild Horse deaths on the south side of SR260, two domestic horses were found shot on Sept. 30, 2019 near Pinedale on the north side of SR260. Since the horses were privately owned, Navajo County Sheriff’s Office responded, investigated and arrested 19-year old Ryland Haynes of Lakeside on October 18, 2019.

It is unknown if this incident and arrest are related to the killings of the Heber Wild Horses.

Now the public wants to know, when will it end? And, more importantly, what is the status of the investigation being conducted by the Law Enforcement Investigation (LEI) division of the US Forest Service?

Repeated inquiries to the Forest Service for updates return the same answer: “At this time, we do not have any additional details on the investigation that we can provide.”

Some community members have lost faith in the investigative process which has been compounded by the Forest Service despite Saturday’s press release asking “… the public to remain patient and to avoid the area during the ongoing investigation.”

“I am outraged to hear this news, as your agencies have failed miserably at investigating and arresting a person or persons responsible for the prior shootings of wild horses in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest,” writes Kathie Reidhead of Payson in an email to the Forest Service and NCSO.

Reidhead reported witnessing an individual shooting towards the horses last summer while she was taking pictures of the Heber Wild Horses on national forest lands. She claims that, to date, she “was never contacted by anyone at USFS for an interview.”

“A very sick individual is on the loose, stalking and killing wild horses and it is very concerning because public safety is at risk too,” she adds. “In the incident I witnessed on May 2, 2019, I could have been shot as well.”

Saturday’s USFS press release states “The Forest Service law enforcement and equine experts, in partnership with the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office are investigating the deaths of the horses.” On Monday, NCSO officials confirmed they were not dispatched to the scene but would support the USFS investigation as needed.

The Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance (a.k.a. Heber Wild Horses) is a grassroots advocacy group based in Heber-Overgaard who have kept tabs on the federally protected herd for decades.

They were the first to report horses that appeared to have been shot in the forest – the first being two stallions found in October 2018.

The group routinely tracks and observes the Heber Wild Horses and various members have discovered the bodies of other Heber Wild Horses between October 2018 and April 2019. However, they were not aware of the most recent incident in which eight horses were discovered with evidence of gunshot wounds. They only became aware by means of Saturday’s press release.

“What will it take for the Forest Service to take the shootings of Federally protected Heber wild horses seriously?” posted the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance on their Facebook page on Saturday. “Will they bother to interview people who call in tips this year? They didn’t bother to contact tipsters from last year’s killing spree.”

The Independent briefly spoke to Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Supervisor’s Office Information Assistant Steven Johnson on Monday morning to ask for more details about where the horses were found, who found the bodies and whether they appeared to be of the same band.

Johnson said he and the Forest Service press team were sorting through multiple national, state and local media inquiries and compiling answers but did not have that information by press time.

It should also be noted that the Heber Wild Horses are protected whether they are inside or outside of the designated territory.

“The 16 U.S. Code § 1338 criminal provisions state ‘Any person who maliciously causes the death or harassment of any wild free-roaming horse or burro shall be subject to a fine of not more than $2,000, or imprisonment for not more than one year, or both,’” states Saturday’s press release.

If the public encounters an injured or deceased horse, please contact the Black Mesa Ranger District at 928-535-7300 to report it immediately.

Education funding ranks as top issue in voter poll

ARIZONA — Education remains on the top of the list of voter concerns, according to a statewide poll of likely voters.

Some 42 percent listed education issues as their top issue, 25 percent cited border and immigration concerns and 10 percent cited healthcare, according to a survey of 600 likely Arizona voters by Expect More Arizona – an education advocacy group comprised of business and educational leaders. Expect More Arizona in 2016 adopted a set of goals for 2024, but so far the state has made little progress towards those goals.

Education has ranked as the top issue for the past five years in the group’s polling. Key findings included:

• 85 percent said K-12 teacher salaries are too low, including 92 percent of Democrats, 94 percent of Independents and 72 percent of Republicans.

• 73 percent said the state doesn’t spend enough on education.

• 94 percent said the quality of schools affects the strength of communities.

• 94 percent said schools need enough funding to attract and retain good teachers.

• The five top priorities in order were raising teacher pay, improving lower-performing schools, 3rd grade reading skills, vocational education and reducing the cost of universities and community colleges.

The voters’ priorities so far aren’t reflected in the early campaigns for state House and Senate seats – especially in Arizona’s District 6, which includes Flagstaff, the Verde Valley, Rim Country and the White Mountains.

Some three months before the state’s primary, the state house and senate races in Rim Country and the White Mountains have settled down, with a shuffling of candidates to leave most of the party primaries uncontested. However, all three legislative seats should spur a spirited general election campaign, in one of the more competitive districts in the state.

None of the candidates so far have made education a central campaign issue or released detailed educational policies, although several have track records on the issue.

District 6 House

Race candidates

Brenda Barton

file photo 


Former Rep. Brenda Barton recently announced her campaign to win back a seat she relinquished for two years due to term limits.

She was in the legislature when lawmakers made the deepest cuts in state schools in the nation, leaving the state near the bottom on most measures including teacher salaries, class size, per-student funding and other measures. She’s seeking the seat of Rep. Bob Thorpe, who has hit his term limit.

Her release announcing her campaign vowed she would “continue defending constitutional rights, state sovereignty, First through the Tenth Amendment freedoms and traditional family values.”

Her web site’s statement on education said, “Brenda understands the need for improvements to Arizona’s public education at all levels. She has supported better, locally-funded kindergarten programs that give Arizona’s kids the right foundation for success. She has helped improve the state’s technical and vocational training programs (JTED) through greater accessibility and partnerships with local industries to train Arizonans for high-demand jobs.”

Walter Blackman

Courtesy photo  


Incumbent Walt Blackman, of Snowflake, is also seeking re-election. He spent 22 years in the US Army before his retirement and won election in 2018. He has not played a prominent role in any of the education debates in the past two years, but did vote for Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposal providing an average, statewide 20 percent increase in teacher salaries over three years – including a final promised 5 percent installment this year. The increase still leaves Arizona teacher salaries near the bottom nationally.

Coral Evans

Courtesy photo 


Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans is so far the only Democrat running for one of the two House seats. The daughter of an English teacher, Evans’ website has a statement calling for a big increase in spending on education, but no specific proposals for how to raise the money for the improvements she’s proposing. She notes that teacher pay is 49th nationally for elementary school teachers and 48th for secondary school teachers. Arizona also ranks 46th for high school graduation rates and has the largest class sizes in the nation. Evans said last year the legislature approved $386 million in tax cuts and $304 million in taxpayer funding for private schools, but did not fund some $420 million in deferred repair and maintenance for public schools. She called the state’s education funding priorities “unacceptable.”

Art Babbott

Courtesy photo 


Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott is running as an Independent for the House seat. A Flagstaff businessman who served on the city council, Babbott has been a leading advocate for forest restoration and thinning projects. During his one appearance in Payson so far, he didn’t talk much about education issues, although he did call for eliminating a billion dollars worth of corporate and sales tax exemptions to boost K-12 per-student spending. “Our #1 priority should be education,” he said. His campaign website doesn’t include a discussion of issues.

District 6 Senate

Race candidates

Sylvia Allen

and Wendy Rogers

The Republican primary offers a fiery matchup between incumbent Sen. Sylvia Allen and retired Air Force Lt. Col Wendy Rogers, a businesswoman who ran for congress but was defeated by Rep. Tom O’Halleran.

Michele Nelson/Payson Roundup  


Sen. Allen served three terms in the senate before hitting her term limit, then served as a Navajo County Supervisor before returning to the legislature. She has headed the senate education committee and supported the deep cuts during the recession. The former part-owner of a charter school has been an outspoken advocate for charter schools and the state’s tax credits for students going to private schools. She was criticized by the leaders of the Red for Ed teacher demonstrations and walkouts. She responded in kind, saying they were a partisan group controlled by teacher’s unions.

Rogers has based her campaign so far on a series of press releases and fundraising appeals fiercely supportive of President Donald Trump and advocating far tougher measures to halt illegal immigration. She has inflamed Democrats.

File photo 


“We must protect your family from child kidnappers and human trafficking. We must stem the flow of deadly drugs and the ruthless criminals who want to destroy your family’s future. We need to stop the mindless, murderous terrorists who have no fear of the law. By focusing on ‘hate Trump’ the Dems are saying that these murderous thugs matter more than the American people,” she wrote in one recent release.

In another release she wrote, “these Democrats are not patriots, they are trying to tear down America in an insane leftist ideological crusade!”

Rep. Bob Thorpe for a time sought the nomination as well, after Sen. Allen said she’d decided not to seek re-election. He ultimately decided to leave the way open for her and is instead running for the Coconino County Board of Supervisors.

Felicia French


The lone Democrat so far in the Senate race is retired Air Force Col. Felicia French, from Pine. French narrowly lost a bid for a District 6 House seat two years ago. Her platform when she entered the race back in March included support for big increases in education funding and opposition to tax credits that have provided hundreds of millions in funding for private school tuition.

However, her campaign went almost silent after her March entry into the race so she could hike the 800-mile Arizona Trail.

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

PLSD un-cancels meeting to discuss digester

PINETOP-LAKESIDE – With public concern over the fate of the digester at a fever pitch, the Pinetop-Lakeside Sanitary District (PLSD) decided to hold a January board meeting to offer people an opportunity to express concerns and discuss the issue and review the history of the costly piece of equipment.

According to District Manager Dave Smith, two board members approached him and requested the meeting be held because they did not want it to look like there was anything covered up.

Previously, no meeting had been planned because there were no business items on the agenda.

The controversy arose when the PLSD decided to purchase new equipment for use in composting wastewater sludge and paper, a process for which the $1.7 million rotary biomixer, called the digester, has been used for the past 16 years. Some residents are concerned that the town is not getting the full life and dollar value from the expensive equipment.

At the November board meeting an agenda item was the discussion and “…possible action regarding the Rotary Biomixer and the demolition of or possible sale of the equipment.”

The one big item on last week’s agenda that could potentially explain to everyone why the decision was made to replace the digester was — “History & update on compost facility,” but that item came after the call to public. If the call to the public had been moved to take place after the discussion of “History & use of compost facility,” many of the questions posed might not have been asked, or prompted different questions. When Leslee Wessel stepped up to speak, she actually asked the board if she could reserve her comments and questions until after that agenda item, and was told she could.

But prior to Wessel, questions surrounding information about composting, lack of information and concern over the ending of the digester’s use, and how the board arrived at their decision consumed the questions and comments.

Barbara Bruce / Barbara Bruce/The Independent  

Bookending the Jan. 8 meeting with opening and closing comments as a ratepayer and key member of the Save Our Digester group, former PLSD District Manager Gary Atkin asked that the December meeting minutes be amended to include all 10 speakers and their comments; at the close of the meeting, with regard to putting the digester out to pasture, so-to-speak, Atkin said, “I can be convinced, but I am not convinced; mechanics and finances are big hurdles for me.”

Gary Atkin, a former PLSD district manager and member of the community group, Save Our Digester, was the first to speak. He began by thanking the board for “uncancelling the meeting.”

Atkin also asked that the minutes from the Dec. 11 meeting include everybody who came up and spoke at the call to public.

He went on to reveal that in his research, in the official records there are three different life expectancy periods for the digester: 25, 30 and 50 years.

For the purposes of his calculation, he used 25 years to demonstrate that with the cost of the digester at $1.7 million and 60 percent of its life used, the digester’s value is $680,000. He added that the discussion regarding the replacement of the digester revolved around the cost of replacing the wear bars at a cost of between $200,000 to $270,000. Atkin said the original supplier of the digester said he had not spoken with anyone from PLSD in years and wondered why, under the digester’s current use with cardboard and paper, they would think it necessary.

“It does not need wear bars,” Atkin said.

He went on to say that if you added $200,000 for wear bars to the $680,000 value of the digester, that is “$900,000 left on the table.”

“What are we going to do with the machine if it is discontinued; there is no market for it and the price of steel is way down, making it six figures to discard which is unacceptable,” Atkin said.

1994-98 Digester budget

Following Atkin, nine other ratepayers came forward at call to the public with comments and questions, plus two PLSD employees.

As in the last meeting, communication or the lack of it, to ratepayers was a common thread, many suggesting a newsletter or some form of communication from the district regarding district plans and activities.

One of the two PLSD employees to speak was Jeff Ryan who has been with the district for 18 years. She works in treatment and composting. She said, “We will continue recycling. The digester does not suit our needs; never has. Using it 16 to 17 years has not been rainbows and butterflies, I’ll guarantee that. Recycle, yes, but there is a better way to do it.”

Employee Melissa Kenchiova said she had always been told that the life of the digester was 15 years, and she said she disagrees that the wear bars are not necessary.

Mark Wessel, a former PLSD board member who spoke at the call to the public, reminded everyone that “clean water is why we are in business.” He added that “having been there for financial decisions we do not take it lightly … give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Board member Chris Kengla reiterated that the board continues to recycle regardless of the cost because it is what the community wants.

Board member Paul Meier said, “If Dave had his way, we would haul it to the landfill,” which is what most wastewater treatment plants do.

District Manager David Smith said the board makes the decisions and it is his job to see that they are carried out.

Smith went over the Powerpoint presentation line by line explaining the history and then summed up the reasoning for the new equipment.

Atkin bookended the meeting, reminding the board of their investment in the digester, and suggesting the creation of an ad hoc committee.

Kengla commented that the board had a fiduciary duty in this matter, and Board Member Diana Butler suggested that other people could run for the board.

The Save Our Digester group hopes to set up a tour of the composting facility with the district. Information can be found on Save Our Digester’s Facebook page for members or previewers.