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Apache-Sitgreaves not included in Mexican spotted owl court order

ARIZONA — A federal court order has halted all tree-cutting activities including forest-thinning treatments, prescribed fire and even firewood fuel permits in the Gila National Forest in western New Mexico and the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona. The order is also in effect on four other national forests in New Mexico.

Judge Raner Collins of the U.S. District Court in Tucson issued an injunction on September 11 in response to a case filed by WildEarth Guardians, a Sante Fe-based environmental group, in 2013. The suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service alleges that the two agencies have not adequately tracked the bird’s population numbers or documented the impact to the owls from widespread thinning and logging.

“Whether or not the population is stable or drastically declining or increasing in one place and declining in another is totally speculative at this point,” WildEarth Guardians executive director John Horning told the Associated Press.

“As the decision explains, the Forest Service was required to implement a population monitoring protocol for Mexican Spotted Owl since at least 1996. It was expected that, within 10-15 years, management activities such as logging and prescribed burning that the agencies claimed would improve owl habitat, supported by monitoring that would show the species recovery, would enable its de-listing from the Endangered Species Act. Yet, as the decision states, ‘Over twenty years later, delisting has not occurred, and information about the current [Mexican spotted owl] population is still minimal,” states a press release from WildEarth Guardians.


not affected

“We received information from the court … that the five National Forests in Arizona are not within the scope of the Order as those forests currently operate under 2012 Biological Opinions, this includes the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab, Coronado and Prescott National Forests,” said Shayne Martin, deputy director of communications and engagement for the Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service. The updated Biological Opinion documents apparently demonstrated to the court that these forests were taking greater steps to document the owls.

The court’s ruling means that five national forests in New Mexico — the Gila, Carson, Cibola, Santa Fe, and Lincoln — must undertake new biological consultations for the owl and it’s habitats in order to meet their obligations under the Endangered Species Act. Currently, no tree-cutting activities are allowed in these forests.

For the Gila National Forest, that process is expected to take at least a year, according to a report in the Silver City Daily Press, and threatens small sawmills that remain in places like Reserve, New Mexico, located about 30 miles east of Alpine.

For the Tonto National Forest, it is unclear how long the shutdown might last, or how it might affect a recent request for proposals (RFP) for 20-year forest restoration contracts as a part of the 4-Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). On Thursday, the Forest Service issued an updated press release.

"In addition to fuelwood permits, the six national forests have also suspended all timber management activities, including stewardship contracts, timber sales, thinning and prescribed burns, in order to comply with the ruling. Each forest affected by the injunction may be able to provide customers with a potential alternative fuelwood options in their area."

Southwestern Regional Forester Cal Joyner acknowledged the hardship that the implementation of the court order imposes on tribes and rural communities that depend on the national forests for their sustenance.

"Our staff is exhaustively exploring every possible option to come to a quick resolution so that we can continue to assist the communities we serve," Joyner said. "While we are limited on the details we can share while we are in litigation, please know that we will continue to communicate what we can regularly, and we are grateful for your support, understanding and patience," he said in the press release.

The court order brings back painful memories of the shutdown of forest industries in the region after the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Forest Service in the mid 1990s to force the federal government to implement a recovery plan for the Mexican spotted owl.

However, some aspects of the recent injunction may be modified to allow for some forestry-related activities, as WildEarth Guardians has indicated they are open to discussing that possibility.

“While the Forest Service finally steps up to its conservation obligations and assesses how its management programs affect the recovery of the Mexican spotted owl as a species, certain timber projects will be paused in light of the judge’s decision,” explained Steve Sugarman, the attorney representing WildEarth Guardians. “WildEarth Guardians has already opened up a dialogue with the Forest Service to assure that this pause will be orderly, and that it will not unnecessarily impede the implementation of projects that are truly necessary for the protection of life and property,” the group stated in a press release.

Mexican spotted owls are among the largest owl species in the U.S. and they live in mountain forests in southwestern Colorado, southern Utah, New Mexico and along the Mogollon Rim and other forests in Arizona. The largest populations are in New Mexico and Arizona. The owl was listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993, when approximately 2,000 of the birds were believed to be in existence. A 2015 Monitoring and Evaluation Report produced by Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest documents 158 Protected Activity Centers (PACs) used by the owls on the forest. Seventy-eight of those were monitored, and 57 were verified as occupied by nesting pairs or juveniles.

Statewide teacher shortage festers

ARIZONA — Arizona remains perhaps the worst state in the country to be a public school teacher, according to a recent national survey.

The findings help explain Arizona’s nagging teacher shortage, which has left teaching positions unfilled throughout the state despite legislative efforts to loosen teaching requirements and waive the need for credentials.

The 150 schools surveyed started the school year with an estimated 6,950 unfilled teaching positions, according to the Arizona School Personnel Administrator’s Association. At this point in the school year, 20 percent of those positions remain unfilled – roughly 1,440. Last year, schools had 6,230 unfilled positions at the start of the year, with 25 percent unfilled at this point, roughly 1,557 jobs.

The problem actually got worse as the school year started, after 300 teachers resigned, 81 never showed up for work and 63 simply abandoned their jobs

This year’s statewide 10 percent teacher pay raise has reduced the percentage of unfilled jobs somewhat, the study’s author’s concluded. On the other hand, the number of students enrolled in teacher training programs at the state’s three universities has fallen steadily.

However, schools have largely filled the gap by hiring people with emergency credentials or waivers, which means they haven’t completed training in classroom management and teaching methods – or they’re teaching outside their field of expertise.

“The severity of the teacher shortage must be addressed,” said ASPAA President Laura Elizondo. “Arizona leaders must make a collective effort to ensure the recruitment and retention of effective teachers through increased funding. A highly educated, skilled workforce is the cornerstone to a growing, thriving economy.”

Arizona ranks

last in working

conditions for teachers

The shortage in Arizona reflects the generally poor salary, security and working conditions for teachers in Arizona, according to a national study by Wallet Hub (https://wallethub.com/edu/best-and-worst-states-for-teachers/7159/).

The study ranked Arizona dead last on its list of “best states for teachers.”

North Dakota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Connecticut claimed the top five spots.

West Virginia, Louisiana, Hawaii, New Hampshire and Arizona placed last.

The survey took into account salaries, class sizes, turnover rates, job security, cost of living, teacher-student ratios, per-student spending levels, overall school system quality and teacher safety. In all, the study considered 23 factors. Arizona came out near the bottom on most measurements, including: 46th for teacher turnover, 51st for teacher-student ratios, 47th for public school spending per student and 49th for quality of the school system overall.

The survey noted that about 20 percent of teachers quit within three years of starting in the profession and half leave within five years. Teachers who leave their jobs or abandon their careers mostly say they feel “overwhelmed, ineffective and unsupported,” concluded the survey.

Education jobs remain one of the lowest-paying jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree and continue to lag behind the inflation rate when it comes to salary growth.

University of Denver assistant professor Walter Fernando Balser said “the one common denominator we are hearing from teachers is that they are being asked to do too much. Put simply, we have been ‘piling on’ teachers for decades and we are now at the breaking point.”

Pennsylvania State University Associate Professor Edward Fuller commented, “the biggest issues facing teachers today are inadequate salaries, declining overall working conditions, high-stakes testing and accountability that does not accurately capture their work, the increasing number of demands made on teachers, a lack of time and too many policymakers and pundits who demonize teachers as lacking the intelligence and commitment to do the job well. In some cases, teachers face class sizes and student loads that are too large to effectively serve students’ needs.”

University of Tennessee Associate Professor Anthony Pellegrino commented, “a major challenge teachers face today is navigating the curricular mandates coming from policymakers – who are often out of touch with public schools – with meeting the needs of the learners these teachers work with every day. It puts teachers in a terribly difficult spot. Mandates and counter-productive policies leave them dismayed. Teachers are micromanaged in a way seen in few other professions. I can’t think of any other profession where those who work in the field are treated less professionally.”

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

Minor earthquake reported in Apache County

APACHE COUNTY — An earthquake registering 3.1 on the Richter Scale occurred 14.9 miles north-northwest of St. Johns at around midnight Sept. 23.

According to the US Geological Survey, the event was documented by the Tucson seismology station and occurred about 5 kilometers underground.

It’s unclear how many area residents may have felt the minor quake. No damage is known to have been reported.

“It felt like when a hard microburst suddenly hits the side of the house, or a big construction truck goes rumbling by you from 3 feet away,” said St. Johns resident and contributing reporter Amber Shepard.

Earthquakes are uncommon in the region, according to data on earthquake track.com. The most recent earthquakes near St. Johns include a 3.6 magnitude quake in Laguna, New Mexico three years ago and two quakes in Morenci, both seven years ago; one was 3.5 and the other measured 3.6.

Counties' opioids suits in limbo

HOLBROOK & ST. JOHNS — Navajo and Apache counties have sued dozens of drug makers, distributors and individuals seeking reimbursement for the massive expenditures the counties say they have incurred and will incur in dealing with the opioid crisis.

The epidemic has claimed the lives of over 400,000 Americans. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, in a two year period ending in September, 2019, Navajo County had 103 opioid overdose deaths and Apache County had 10.

The counties differ in their approach to the litigation, with Navajo County joining about 2,300 other plaintiffs in a federal suit consolidated in Ohio, and Apache County keeping it local by suing in the Apache County Superior Court.

The main target is Purdue Pharma, Inc. and its affiliates, the makers of OxyContin. That’s the brand name of drug in a particular class of narcotic, and its marketing, and is what plaintiffs have identified as a leading cause of the epidemic. OxyContin a powerful derivative of the Tasmanian poppy, grown and harvested on the Australian island and distributed in the U.S.

The Sacklers, one of the country’s wealthiest families and the owners of Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies are also a prime target.

Purdue Pharma filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 15 in federal bankruptcy court in White Plains, N.Y. which temporarily halts the lawsuits against it. The company says that the filing is the first step in a tentative settlement with plaintiffs in the consolidated federal cases. The idea is that Purdue will restructure itself as a “public benefit trust,” continuing its lucrative pharmaceutical business and paying its profits to various claimants, according to reports.

Purdue estimates that its plan will pay out $3 billion in seven years with the total value of settlement to be around $10-$12 billion. So far, reports the New York Times, 24 states and many of the cities and counties which joined in the consolidated federal suit in Ohio have tentatively agreed to the settlement. Purdue’s board of directors have agreed to it, “in principle” say reports.

Whether Navajo County, a plaintiff in that suit, will go along with the settlement is unknown. The Navajo County Attorney’s office has not returned calls or texts from the Independent. As mentioned, Apache County is not part of the federal cases.

The extent of the opioid problem is revealed by data gathered by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and made public by The Washington Post and a West Virginia newspaper after they acquired it by suing the federal government. The database shows the number of certain types of prescription opiates distributed in every county in the U.S. between 2006 and 2012.

In that time period, a total of 23,618,291 prescription pills were distributed in Navajo County — that’s 31 pills per year for every person in the county. For Apache County, the database lists 4,621,785 prescription pain pills during that same time period, or 9 pills per year for every person in that county. The newspapers are currently involved in a suit to get more recent data.

How much will

the counties get?

As with most settlements talks, the first of many snags has emerged. First, the attorney general of New York, Letitia James, has notified the court that her investigation suggests that about $1 billion has been transferred to a Sackler family member from one or more Purdue-related companies. And in Arizona, Attorney General Mark Brnovich last month specifically asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt such transfers. If true, activities like that don’t exactly engender good faith in negotiations.

Then there is a general skepticism that the public trust restructuring plan for Perdue will pay out as much as Purdue estimates. Such a plan has been used before in suits against an asbestos manufacturer with mixed results.

Aside from the question of how much will be paid out is the question of exactly how much, in terms of dollars, the damages actually are.

Navajo County’s complaint lists costs for increased medical services, law enforcement, courts, public defenders, jails, burial costs, costs for children who have become dependent on the state because of addicted parents, etc, but doesn’t name a specific amount. Apache County’s suit claims similar areas of increased costs, but states that damages will be proven at trial.

In the first judgment handed down after a trial about opiate-related costs in Oklahoma, the court came up with a final figure — $572 million, against one defendant. In Oklahoma’s suit against manufacturer Johnson & Johnson the trial judge broke down the $572 million he awarded to the plaintiff. The Oklahoma judgment’s laundry list of damages includes treatment programs for newly-identified disorders like opioid use disorder, addiction treatment programs, including treatment for addicted newborn babies, medication and disposal programs, training of medical providers to screen, recognize and treat users, distribution of the drug naloxone which reverses effects of opioids during overdoses, and the costs of other programs.

The judge noted that his calculation was only one year’s costs to that state; that although the plaintiffs produced testimony that it would take 20 years worth of effort to resolve the problem, “the State did not present sufficient evidence of the amount of time and costs necessary, beyond one year, to abate the Opioid Crisis,” wrote the judge. Johnson & Johnson has appealed the judgment.

So the damages to one plaintiff, the State of Oklahoma, for one year is $571,102,028, says the court.

That’s not counting claims from other Oklahoma counties, cities, towns or tribes — and not counting the alleged costs to the estimated 2,700 other plaintiffs nationwide, including Navajo and Apache counties, waiting for their day in court.

Negotiators have to wonder if there will be any money left after the very last case is decided.