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Tribe remembers Ronnie Lupe, ‘a man of compassion’

WHITERIVER — The word that was used most frequently by speakers offering tribute to longtime former White Mountain Apache Tribal Chairman Ronnie Lupe was “compassion.”

Hundreds filled the Chief Alchesay Activity Center in Whiteriver Saturday morning for the funeral. Local residents and their families, including many military veterans in uniform, women wearing traditional camp dresses and moccasins, were in attendance.

Also there to pay tribute were representatives of many tribal nations including Mescalero and Yavapai Apache, Navajo, Hopi, Tohono O’odam and others. Representatives of the Boeing Corporation (makers of the Apache helicopter), Johnny Basha, Salt River Project.

Many tributes were offered to the former chairman, who began his life in a traditional wickiup in Cibecue, but worked throughout his career to bring sovereignty and economic self-sufficiency to his people. Through his leadership he helped to raise the tribe’s standard of living by building critical infrastructure in tribal communities, including water, sewer, schools, fire stations and much more.

Critical business developments the tribe achieved under Lupe include Sunrise Park Resort and Hon-Dah Resort and Casino.

Lupe served an amazing 54 years in tribal government, serving 10 years on the tribal council and nine terms as tribal chairman. He was first elected to the tribal council in 1964, and won his first election to the seat of chairman in 1966 at age 36.

“Politics does not make you who you are, it reveals who you are,”said Tribal Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood in her tribute to Lupe, “and Ronnie Lupe was a man of compassion,” who was loved by his people, she said.

Lupe’s vision and his steely determination to gain the sovereignty and rights of his people was outlined during the comments made by former tribal attorney, Robert Brauchli.

Brauchli outlined how Lupe worked to ensure that skilled jobs at the Southwest Forest Industries sawmill, which later became Fort Apache Timber Company (FATCO) were offered to tribal members, and fought a state tax on timber cut on tribal lands all the way to the Supreme Court and won.

The Tribe’s efforts under Lupe to undertake the sole regulation of their game resources was another triumph, said Brauchli, when the Tribe won a permanent injunction against Arizona Game and Fish.

The Tribe’s successful assertion of their water rights, Brauchli said, was the most significant achievement under Chairman Lupe. Brauchli noted that 78 percent of the water in Lake Roosevelt comes from White Mountain Apache Tribe lands, and the value of the tribe’s water rights is estimated at a whopping $458 million.

Even through these conflicts, Brauchli said Lupe’s sense of humanity remained intact, his compassion was evident. Brauchli noted that once the Tribe’s rights were secured, they went on to have friendly and productive relation with Arizona Game and Fish that resulted in protecting the Apache trout, and partnerships with SRP as well.

Lupe, he said, conquered his enemies by making them his friends.

Brauchli said the tribe will see Lupe’s final goal accomplished when the Miner Flat Dam, a multi-million dollar project that will bring water to his home community of Cibecue, is completed in about two years.

“One day I want to be standing in Cibecue,” Brauchli said, his voice breaking with emotion, “when that first glass of water is poured, to toast Chairman Lupe — your vision is fulfilled,” Brauchli said.


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Apache County opioid lawsuit gets a boost

APACHE COUNTY — Apache County’s approach to a lawsuit against drug companies making opiates got a boost recently in state courts.

Navajo County – not so much.

Both Navajo and Apache counties are seeking money from drug companies that manufactured addictive painkillers that triggered a national epidemic of opiate overdose deaths and addiction that has hit rural counties especially hard.

Navajo County filed its lawsuit in federal district court. A judge merged the county’s lawsuit with 600 others to create a “multidistrict litigation” being heard in the Northern District of Ohio federal court.

Apache County brought its action in Superior Court, as have Yavapai and Yuma counties. They gambled on the idea that local trials would move faster and likely yield a more sympathetic jury than a national effort.

In a validation of that approach, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Brnovich recently ruled that an opiate lawsuit by the Town of Prescott can go forward in Yavapai County Superior Court, rather than joining the consolidated national action.

Brnovich is married to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who is also suing on behalf of the state.

Companies named in that lawsuit include Purdue Pharma, Actavis Inc., McKesson Corp and Cardinal Health as well some doctors.

The US has 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 75 percent of the world’s opiate-based pain relievers. Some 300,000 Americans have died from overdoses in the past 20 years, with projections showing another 500,000 could die in the next 10 years. The toll has already reached about 50,000 annually.

Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin, earlier this year settled a lawsuit with the state of Oklahoma for $270 million. Other legal actions have revealed the degree to which the Sacklers, the wealthy family that owns Purdue, were involved in marketing OxyContin and their effort to shift money from the company to other entities, presumably less vulnerable to legal judgements.

The filing of thousands of lawsuits by states, cities and counties was also boosted by Purdue’s $600-million settlement with the federal government in 2007. Company officials also face potential criminal charges.

Money from some of those settlements has already gone to help reduce the impact of the epidemic, including making more available overdose-reversal drugs like naloxone, which many police and firefighters now carry.

“The funds obtained in several government suits have provided desperately needed resources for opioid addiction treatment and law enforcement. Future payouts, reasonably likely to increase in frequency and magnitude, could also be earmarked for other support services for persons with addiction — such as housing and employment assistance — and for distributing the overdose-reversal drug naloxone. Experience suggests that the challenge will be ensuring that the windfalls to state governments are not diverted to unrelated purposes,” concluded a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The counties and towns are generally using outside law firms to pursue their cases, with the law firms involved keeping 15 to 20 percent of whatever settlement their clients receive.

They’re hoping for something like the $250 billion settlement tobacco companies reached in 1998, after evidence showed tobacco companies had tried to cover up evidence of the addictive power of nicotine, while manipulating their products to make them more addictive.

So far about 30 states and 1,500 cities and counties have filed opiate lawsuits against a handful of big drug companies, claiming they aggressively marketed addictive, opiate-based painkillers to doctors and the public, while minimizing or misstating the risk of addiction – especially for chronic pain patients.

Drug companies rake in about $13 billion annually from the sales of prescription pain killers. Use of the drugs has spiraled, with an estimated 130 drug overdose deaths a day, according to a summary published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2017 alone, 47,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose, including heroin and fentanyl (a potent synthetic opioid). An estimated 1.7 million people in the US suffer from substance abuse disorders.

The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that the “economic burden” of opioid addiction totals some $79 billion annually, including healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment and the criminal justice involvement.

Rural areas have been especially hard hit, although the plague is increasingly spreading now to urban areas. The epidemic hit in three waves, starting with a dramatic rise in the use of painkillers, which led to a rise in heroin addiction as people shifted from the more expensive and harder-to-obtain painkillers. Now, the epidemic has shifted again to fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that’s much more likely to cause an overdose. Increasingly, heroin is laced with illegally produced fentanyl.

Death rates for drug overdoses are about 50 percent higher in rural areas. From 1999 to 2015 death rates from overdoses among young males increase fourfold, while rates for young females increased three-fold. The rise in overdose deaths moved in lock-step with the increase in opiate painkiller prescriptions and marketing efforts.

Epidemic began with effort at better pain control for terminally-ill

The epidemic started more than a decade ago when doctors began to reassess their use of opiate-based painkillers – initially for terminally-ill cancer patients.

Studies suggested doctors in hospitals could do much more to control the pain levels of patients with cancer and other terminal diseases without a big risk of addiction. As a result, board of medical examiners and others begin to loosen the once tight restrictions on the use of opiate painkillers. This resulted in an explosion in the use of painkillers for patients with chronic pain, rather than hospitalized patients.

Follow-up studies soon showed that not only did opiate pain pills lose their effect over time, they can actually make patients hypersensitive to pain – setting the stage for addiction. However, those studies had little impact on the number of prescriptions written – or marketing campaigns for painkillers.

One study by the Centers for Disease Control in California found that 3 percent of the doctors accounted for 62 percent of the opioid prescriptions, often operating from “pill mills.” Other studies showed overdose deaths rose in lockstep with money spent on marketing in a given area. Often, the drug companies market directly to doctors – sometimes enriching the doctors who increase their prescriptions.

Doctors finally started cutting back on their prescribing, although the number of pills doled out remains far above the 1999 levels. Even so, opiate deaths continue to rise – hitting 48,000 in 2017. That probably reflects the rising availability of fentanyl, much of it produced by illegal labs in Mexico and China and smuggled into the country illegally. Fentanyl is perhaps 50 times more likely to cause an overdose and is now often mixed in with other drugs, so the user doesn’t even know they’re using it.

The Apache and Navajo county lawsuits turn on the contention that the drug companies misled or corrupted doctors and failed to build in safety measures, like including an antagonist agent or tamper-resistant formulation. Moreover, the companies failed to tell doctors about the rising number of studies showing the addiction risk for chronic pain patients.

However, the FDA approval of the formulations of the pain killers and lack of objection to the marketing efforts remain a big barrier to convincing a jury the drug companies acted recklessly. Generally, the FDA requires drug companies to communicate risks and data to doctors, but not to patients.

Many drug companies have a lucrative relationship with the doctors who prescribe their product, paying them tens of thousands of dollars for speeches, attending seminars or undertaking studies. Currently, medical journals require doctors to disclose financial ties to drug companies when they submit articles, but many physicians ignore those requirements. Generally, doctors don’t have any legal or ethical restrictions on such financial relationships – unless an individual hospital or practice imposes a rule of its own.

Dr. Arthur Gale concluded several US Supreme Court decisions opened the door to treating doctors as “ordinary purveyors of commerce” rather than “learned professions.” The decision in 1972 was supposed to help lower medical costs, but instead perhaps contributed to an explosion in medical costs and troubling financial ties between doctors and drug companies.

“When the practice of medicine loses its ethical foundation and operates by the rules of the marketplace rather than ethical standards one can expect disasters like the money-driven, physician-caused opioid epidemic to occur again,” he concluded in an analysis published in the Journal of the Missouri Medical Association.

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


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Hard-headed economics and political will key to saving forested communities

WHITE MOUNTAINS — Environmentalists, politicians, bureaucrats and foresters alike maintain that a properly reinvented timber industry can save us before we all burn down.

Well, maybe. But it’s complicated.

Just ask Alan Reidhead – whose family has operated sawmills in Arizona for six generations. Reidhead was one of the key speakers at a recent forest health conference in Payson. He asked some tough questions.

“It’s not just you — or me — that’s going to make the difference, but the community coming together so we can protect ourselves and protect towns like Payson or Show Low. We’re just one match, one lightning strike away from being lost. What do the Powers That Be really want? Do you want to save that watershed? But what are you willing to do?”

Forest thinning projects have stalled for a lack of market for the biomass.

And maybe also talk to Brad Worsley, trying desperately to save the only biomass-burning power plant in Arizona – which holds the economic key to forest thinning efforts across a vast swath of unhealthy, over-crowded, wildfire-prone land in Northern Arizona.

“We’ve burned to the ground one quarter of our National Forests in just 20 years. That’s not sustainable. I can’t imagine any business that could see this kind of catastrophic failure in its execution and not recognize we’re in a dramatic state of emergency,” said the NovoPower chief executive.

He spoke in the shadow of the Arizona Corporation Commission’s recent decision to not require Arizona Public Service to generate some 60 megawatts of power annually from biomass. The decision could force the shutdown of the NovoPower biomass power plant in three years, unless Salt River Project or some other power company decides to pay more for biomass power to save the watershed and reduce the risk of megafires.

“On every given acre, half of the biomass has little to no value,” said Worsley. “That kind of mass will bury any business in the forest industry. There’s just not sufficient margin, when you can be out of work for five months (in the winter) and housing drops and wood values plummet. If you want a model that works, you can’t have the albatross of low-value biomass around the neck of an industry that’s struggling to survive.”

File photo//  

The Novo BioPower facility near Snowflake can turn the brush and wood scraps from 15,000 acres of thinned forest into electricity.

The day-long conference mostly focused on what it would take to revive the timber industry and meet the ambitious, 50,000-acre-a-year target set by the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI). After eight years and four changes of contractors, 4FRI has thinned only about 15,000 acres in the Flagstaff area. Repeatedly, the small-scale and limited experience of the contractors has been compounded by the lack of a market for the biomass they must remove to restore the forest.

By contrast, in the same time the sawmill and the NovoPower biomass power plant they operate have sustained thinning efforts that have cleared more than 70,000-acres in the White Mountains. Reidhead and Worsley both spoke at the Payson forest health conference organized by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension at Gila Community College. They provided a gritty dose of reality when talking about what it will take to reduce tree densities on four million acres from 1,000 trees per acre to 100 per acre.

The two hard-headed businessmen said those thinning efforts will determine whether Payson and Show Low and Pinetop and Pine go the way of Paradise, California. Last year, 85 people died when a wildfire burned Paradise to the ground — a catastrophe all the experts predicted would play out some day in the West.

Worsley and Reidhead both rejected the polarizing narrative that blames either the lawsuits of environmentalists or the greed of industry for the plight of the forests today.

Reidhead put the evolution of the forest products industry in Arizona into perspective.

“I’m a sixth-generation forester. Sawmills are kind of in my blood. My first memories are being out in the forest with my dad and the stories he would tell me about hauling logs with draft horses.”

His family started in the business when loggers were cutting down huge, centuries-old ponderosa pines “with a value of $5,000 a load. It was a different dynamic — a lot of little contractors. Like when my grandpa started out, it was just him and his boys — but that operation grew to 30 or 40 employees.”

He remembers the “timber wars” with environmentalists trying to restrict logging and the forest industry still focused on the dwindling number of old-growth trees.

“It started to become one or the other — close the forest, don’t touch it, or we have to make as much money as possible and to do that we have to get the wood out that we can make money on.”

But ultimately, the changes in the forest changed the economics of the forest industry.

“We were at the end of the 300 or 400-year life cycle of the big, high-value trees. You’d go back to an area you’d worked and there were just three big trees left – 80 feet tall – 30 inch diameter. One was dead on the ground and the next one was dying, dropping needles. They were getting to where we just didn’t have enough water to support some of the larger trees – there weren’t any harvestable trees left, so the timber industry had to change.”

“After the timber wars and the Endangered Species Act, they saw there was no future in putting millions and millions back into the industry — so everything closed. We went from hundreds of loads and 350 million board feet to almost zero coming off,” he recalled.

His family moved to the Valley and took up clearing desert land for big subdivisions.

Now, loggers, environmentalists, local officials and the Forest Service all agree on the need for a forest industry that can make a profit on the millions of tons of small trees choking almost every acre of forest land — trees from 8 to 18 inches in diameter. Along with those trees comes the brush, branches and debris that constitute the biomass – roughly half of the material that needs to be removed.

His family came back to the White Mountains and opened a sawmill, thanks largely to the White Mountain Stewardship Project, which ended up thinning some 71,303 acres in 10 years. In that case, the Forest Service paid a subsidy, about $499 per acre to deal with the biomass and the retooled sawmill turned the small trees into profitable products.

“People started to look at each other and say, ‘I don’t want the forest to burn and you don’t want the forest to burn — so why don’t we come together and do something?’. But one of the hardest challenges is that it’s all government land. Who’s going to risk millions of dollars in a government-operated forest? I’ve talked to people nationwide and they say, you’re crazy. But here’s what makes it happen: We’ve all come together.”

Worslely came to a similar conclusion, seeing the effect that operating a biomass power plant had on thinning efforts in the White Mountains and the group of small companies nurtured by the White Mountain Stewardship Program.

“We need to build an industry that can clear 50,000 acres a year sustainably,” he said.

For now, that means creating a market for biomass power plants – even if the energy costs more than power generated by natural gas. While the idea of other products produced from biomass have been proposed, none has yet proved financially feasible.

“If someone had some way to magically turn the biomass into jet fuel or biochar, they would have a wonderful business and be very wealthy – but that’s not how it’s working,” Worsley said.

The inexorable economics of generating power from biomass means someone must provide a subsidy for high-cost biomass to compete with natural gas or solar energy. That subsidy can come in the form of power companies paying more and passing the cost along to customers or federal and state grants.

“This will only happen if there’s the political will to do so. If we don’t, we’ll burn. If we had happen here what happened in Paradise – Arizona could have the solutions in place in 30 days. We know what’s sustainable, what is executable. We need to burn a million green tons of biomass every year,” Worsley concluded.

Next: Politics and blame-placing play out on a panel of experts.

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


Barbara Bruce/The Independent  

Celebrating 35 years as a town, the community of Pinetop-Lakeside gathered at Mountain Meadows Recreation Complex Saturday, Aug. 17. With vendors who represented various businesses and government agencies, entertainment, a woodcarving contest, bounces and other fun things to do, people enjoyed themselves under the sunny, 82 degree Mountain weather.


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Ballots piling up for Prop. 421

NAVAJO COUNTY — Navajo County officials are in an agony of suspense as mail-in ballots pile up that could determine whether the county has to resort to broad layoffs to balance its budget.

Some 6,000 ballots had already arrived in the county elections office last week, said Elections Director Rayleen Richards.

The county is seeking voter approval for the establishment of a jail district, with a one-third of a cent increase in the county’s share of the sales tax. That would add about one cent to the cost of a cup of coffee and maybe two cents to the cost of a hamburger. The money will actually not go to jails, but will instead offset decreased county revenues due to the closure of the Kayenta Coal Mine and the Cholla Power plant.

The county would get an extra $2.5 million while cities would net another $1 million, through reductions on fees they pay to use the county jail system.

If the measure doesn’t pass, county officials say it could trigger a 20 percent reduction in its workforce – with resulting big reductions and delays in service.

The election will take place on August 27, but most people will probably vote by mail. If you haven’t sent your ballot in by Aug. 21, Richards advises voters to instead take the sealed, signed ballot to a polling place on election day.

The county will count all the mail-in ballots as soon as the polls open on Aug. 27. The county hopes to have most of the ballots cast at polling places machine-counted by the end of the evening.

However, mail-in ballots turned in at the polls and any provisional ballots cast by people for which there are some question about their registration status probably won’t be counted for several days, since county officials must verify information by hand. Richards said the county might not have all the ballots counted before Friday, August 30.

The measure failed by just 164 votes last November.

The first time, the request for the increase in the sales tax appeared on a general election ballot, loaded with propositions and high-profile races. Some 28,000 Navajo County residents voted in that election. However, the last such comparable special election drew some 10,000 votes. Due to the low turnout in a special election, the measure could actually pass this time with a much lower number of votes.

Assistant County Manager Bryan Layton said people have been generally supportive in a series of public forums held this time around – although many people initially remained confused about the measure and uncertain about its effect.

“We’re encouraged that we’ve received a number of phone calls recently from residents as well as invitations from homeowners associations and community groups who want to learn more and fully understand the issue. When we get an opportunity to really dialogue with residents, no one is excited about a sales tax, but they understand why it is needed,” said Layton.

The county has few other options to raise revenue, with big losses in property and sales tax due to the mine and power plant closures looming. A drop in county revenues and other costs shifted onto the counties by the state have forced years of cuts already. The county’s workforce has declined some 16 percent in the past decade. The county has also eliminated its juvenile detention program and the county attorney’s Child Support program. The county has cut capital spending by 75 percent since the recession.

Some of the projected cuts should the measure again fail include:

· The loss of eight sheriff’s deputies, resulting in an increase in emergency response times to 20 minutes and the elimination of 24-hour coverage in many rural areas.

· An increase in caseloads for detectives that may force the sheriff to simply not investigate crimes like burglary and trespassing.

· Elimination of backup patrols for city police forces during overnight shifts.

· Elimination of some drug and alcohol treatment programs, despite the county’s current, lethal opiate and heroin epidemic.

· A big increase in the time it takes to process tax payments, record deeds, make inspections and process building permits and plans.

· Closure of county offices in many rural areas, forcing people to travel to Holbrook or Show Low for many routine county services.

· Every city in the county would save money on jail fees, including $118,000 per year in Show Low, $64,000 per year in Pinetop, $40,000 annually in Snowflake, $328,000 annually in Winslow and $184,000 annually in Holbrook.