It's "Timber!" in Payson

Many a fried Phoenician has stood under Payson's Ponderosa pines and marveled at their majesty. There still are thousands of pines to gape at in the town of 8,000 about an hour and a half northeast of Phoenix. But these days, "progress"--most recently in the shape of a sprawling Wal-Mart store on the town's main east-west drag--is tearing Payson apart.

Geologist Phil Anderson and at least 100 other Payson residents say the town council can't see the forest for the trees. They're furious that Payson's beloved pines are being chopped down at a pace they fear could turn the place into--God forbid--a little Phoenix.

"When a town like this is growing so quickly, its leaders have to make decisions about priorities," says Anderson, an Australian who moved to Payson in 1975. "The council thinks we're a bunch of environmental fanatics, but we're predominantly mature people who just realize that this place is being destroyed. The council just doesn't want to do anything to hold back rampant, blatant development that will destroy everything."

Anderson claims that more than a fourth of Payson's 200,000-plus Ponderosas has been cut down this decade. He and others argue that a standing Ponderosa is worth about $12,000, and that that translates to about $600 million in pine trees having bitten the dust.

Sure, money talks, counters councilmember Tony Plonski, but it depends on whose dollar you're talking about.

"I'd like to see all the trees saved, but you just can't do it," says Plonski, who has taken considerable heat along with Mayor Jack Bennett for comments the pair made at recent town council meetings. "Trees are wonderful, beautiful. But I've said that, for the sake of progress, some may have to come down. When you build homes, commercial property, highways, you just have to lose some trees."

The town's Planning and Zoning Commission has been trying for months to develop an ordinance that may curb some of the tree cutting, which now is generally unrestricted by town government. (Few of Arizona's towns have tree-preservation ordinances. Payson has a mild tree law aimed only at large commercial developments, and everyone agrees that tame ordinance hasn't been enforced.)

But Anderson and company asked the town council at an August 10 meeting to pass an emergency law modeled on Sedona's recently enacted ordinance that calls for steep fines against those who chop down trees without the local government's specific approval.

The Payson Town Council so far has declined to call for an emergency measure.

"It's gotten a little messy up here because of this issue, and there's just no reason for that," says Dick Delster, Payson's administrator of Building, Planning, and Zoning. "The outcome will be compromise. Trees and landscaping and such will be included, and everybody will be happy with it. In the case of shopping centers, you can't have that and have trees. You compromise. Once the trees grow in at Wal-Mart's, the landscaping will look beautiful. It all takes time, but I want that shopping center to be the showplace of Payson when it's done."

Carroll Cox, co-publisher of the weekly Payson Roundup-Mogollon Advisor, points out that the site of the Wal-Mart shopping center on Arizona 260 was not dense with trees before construction started.

"There were some trees there, but it was predominantly a water-catching, grassy area," says Cox, who recently has editorialized in favor of a stringent tree ordinance. "Wal-Mart is probably what broke the camel's back, though, as far as getting people fired up about saving our trees."

Even councilmember Plonski admits he and the other councilmembers weren't thinking of trees when they gave the go-ahead for the Wal-Mart shopping center.

"There's no doubt we could have probably saved some of the trees there if we had more closely supervised it," Plonski says. "The developer likes to go in there and bulldoze the whole thing, and that makes it easier for him. Maybe we were neglectful in saying, `Let's save that big sucker.' Maybe that would have taken some of the pressure off us from the people who are on our backs right now."

It's too late for that "big sucker" and others like it, and it's probably too late for the town council to deflect the pressure. But the council is not solely responsible for Payson's knotty dilemma.

David Makepeace, a field ecologist for the Central Arizona Association of Governments, contended at an August 23 meeting of Payson's Planning and Zoning Commission that the majority of the town's tree loss has been from residential, not commercial, development. That observation was greeted by boos and hisses from many in attendance. Makepeace's comments came during a presentation in which he warned that Payson's rapid tree removal is causing the town's topsoil to erode at an accelerated rate.

Phil Anderson and the growing number of other Payson tree-huggers aren't in much of a compromising mood.

"Most people don't come up here to shop at Wal-Mart's or Bashas'," Anderson says. "They come up here to enjoy the trees, to enjoy the nice, cool microclimate here because of the natural forests. You look at other developments in town--MeraBank, Burger King--they're nestled in among the pines the way they should be. We have no problem with that. "Everyone can think of every possible excuse why the whole town can be raped. Then they'll turn around later and realize, `What have we done? We woke today and we've turned into Phoenix.'

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin