Photo by Nolan Madden
U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both R-Ariz., visited with Navajo County officials and residents in meet-and-greet sessions held in Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside March 24 to hear and discuss local issues, including forest restoration, gray wolf reintroduction, military veteran suicide, tribal community education, and illegal immigration.
By Nolan Madden
U.S. Senators John S. McCain and Jeff Flake embarked on a day tour of Navajo County last week, escorted by officials of its Board of Supervisors, the Arizona Game & Fish Department and local governments, in an effort to understand the local communities’ greatest areas of need.
As part of the Thursday tour, the senators held community town hall sessions with the officials and other south county constituents in Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside.
During the sessions, the senators primarily spoke on public policy and their goals to improve the county’s economic standing, as well as public safety as wildfire season approaches.
“In the State of Arizona, and in Navajo County, the future rests on two issues to a large degree, and that’s fire and water,” said Sen. McCain, relating the statistic that 20 percent of U.S. national forests have been consumed by fire in the past 15 years.
McCain noted that the issue of forest thinning has been given top priority by officials at the nation’s capitol. “Unless we thin these forests, we are going to see the kinds of things that we saw with the Chedeski fire and the Walleye fire, and that is trees literally exploding as the fuels that have accumulated around the bases of the trees burns up,” he predicted.
“Without forest thinning, fires will just sweep right through,” he said, also pointing out the ‘snowball’ effect that forested areas decimated by fire also become susceptible to chronic ground surface water runoff, which worsens drought conditions.
“I would argue that Jeff (Flake) and I spend more time and effort on that single issue than almost any other that we have been involved with, because something has got to change,” the senator stated.
Sen. Flake, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, acknowledged the county’s loss of former forestry related industries related, in part, to federal management of those lands.
“About 15 percent of the State of Arizona is privately owned; the rest is either federal, state or tribal-owned. So that’s why, whenever the federal government makes decisions, it has a bigger impact in our state,” said the junior senator.
“The frustration is very real, and you see it manifested in different ways. Part of the problem for the past several years is that Congress has been unable to rein in federal agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management, that deal with land management. The Senate Reform Committee has proposed legislation to rein that in, and Senator McCain and I support that. It has gone completely overboard,” Sen. Flake commented.
Regarding academic education on tribal lands, Sen. McCain expressed his opinion: “Every place that I have seen School Choice charter schools, they have been better than public schools, and they have made public schools better because of the competition of the parents’ choice between where to send their children to school.”
School Choice Arizona utilizes tax credit donations to scholarship children at private schools in Arizona. Corporations and individuals can donate and claim a dollar-for-dollar tax credit against their Arizona tax liability.
McCain pointed out his and Flake’s plans to introduce legislation that would allow School Choice charter schools to operate on the state’s tribal reservations, “which are arguably the worst schools in America,” he estimated.
The senators also fielded questions on psychiatric care for the county’s military veterans due to a reported lack of rural Arizona clinics, specifically in light of a rising rate of veteran suicides locally.
“The issue is not a problem with money. It is an issue of the right people being equipped with the right programs, administered in the right way. The biggest problem that I see is that when you have a veteran who has died while being on a waiting list for these services,” Sen. McCain said, citing regulatory violations and mismanagement within the State’s U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care System administration.