Things have been pretty pleasant in Pleasant Valley in the last hundred years or so, since its name was branded on frontier legend. But folks up here by the Mogollon Rim think it might be time to set the battle lines again.
Flashback to 1887. On February 2, a Mexican sheepherder working for one of the local Pleasant Valley frontier families, the Tewksburys, was discovered no longer tending his sheep, due to seventeen bullet holes scattered about his person. Thus commenced the notorious Pleasant Valley War.
The Tewksburys were cattle thieves, along with their partners the Grahams, stealing cattle and rebranding them. All was quiet and friendly until a Graham registered the partnership's illegal brand in the Graham name, excising the Tewksburys from reaping the beefy benefits. In retaliation, the Tewksburys brought a herd of rented sheep all the way from Flagstaff to eat up the grass and ruin the range for the cattle. Next thing you know, the Tewksbury sheepherder came up bullet-ridden and all hell broke loose, with ambushes, hangings and assassinations becoming a way of life in the no-longer-so-Pleasant Valley, with anywhere from 12 to 36 men getting killed. Finally, five years later, Ed Tewksbury shot the last living Graham on his way back from a grain delivery to Tempe, leaving himself the only surviving member of either clan and ending the Pleasant Valley War. Or so they thought.
Fast forward to Young today, a town of 700, accessible by 35 bumpy miles of dirt road through the Pleasant Valley section of the Tonto National Forest. Larry Graham is standing in his Future Farmers of America corn patch, trying to water, but he's having trouble. Nineteen-year-old Larry is used to having trouble since he has Down's syndrome; he sometimes has trouble sighting the middle of the water pipes and they get stuck in the ground. But this time the trouble isn't his fault, it's because there are just too many weeds; they're taller than the corn. And the weeds are there because the tractor on loan to the FFA was seized three months back, back when the corn field needed the tractor to turn over the soil. And the tractor was seized because a non-Future Farmer who borrowed the tractor allegedly used it to haul a trailer loaded up with firewood cut down illegally in the national forest.
All of which means war to Larry's mom Jo Ann Graham, as surely as when a Graham of a different era (although no relation) entered his name in the brand registry. Jo Ann Graham, who has the independent-minded crustiness native to many Young dwellers, sees her son and his tractor troubles as being the tip of an iceberg "of a national scope."
On September 19, four men were indicted for stealing 115 cords of wood from the Tonto National Forest. Three of these men were from Young, including Donny Hamilton, one of Young's two beloved deputies. The fourth man, Richard France, lives in Peoria and is believed to have employed the other three. It was France who borrowed the tractor from the FFA. The tractor that's now sitting idle in the forest service's yard as a piece of seized evidence.
Scamming wood from the national forest and bringing it down to sell in Phoenix is a long-standing practice, but Pleasant Valley district ranger Jim Soeth says never has it been as extensive as this year. Bob Wagenfehr, the timber management officer for Tonto, guesses that one in ten of the people in the forest collecting wood are doing it illegally. Since about 8,000 permits are issued annually in the Pleasant Valley-Payson area, this means 800 people are carting away hot wood; although since surveillance of the almost one million acres of forest land is difficult, to say the least, the forest service stresses that any estimates of tree stealing are just SWAG (that's forest service lingo for Scientific Wild-Ass Guesses).
The way a lot of wood thieves work is that they get a permit for their personal use, which has a ten-cord limit, and when they're stopped on the road just whip out the personal permit. Also, a lot of the wood thieves are locals and know all the forest rangers, so when they see the green ranger car going home for the day, they head in. Another frustrating problem for catching the wood thieves is that once they're off forest service land, they're off scot-free;rangers are lobbying for a law permitting them to stop anyone anywhere with a suspicious load of kindling.
Earlier this year, the forest service began an investigation into the rampant wood rustling, with two "Level Four" agents on the case. Level Four agents train at the Federal Law Enforcement Academy in Georgia, the same place where the FBI trains their agents. It may seem like overkill to put ranger G-men on the job, but that gives you an idea how seriously they intended to attack the problem.