By Gerry Kaufhold
Special to the Copper Basin News
On Wednesday, January 20, 2016, the Winkelman Natural Resource Conservation District (WNRCD) hosted a day-long meeting at the General Kearny Inn that included in-depth discussion of the Kearny River Fire recovery project. This project was spearheaded by Bill Dunn and the WNRCD as a way to properly address the wide range of challenges facing our area following the Shipman Fire and last summer’s near-disastrous Kearny River Fire.
There is a lot of work still ahead, and we are trying to build up community interest and gather inputs for what “we the people” would like to see done along the Gila River that runs adjacent to Kearny’s western border. Before we can ask for funding we need to have a plan. This meeting was focused on starting a plan that is developed in partnership with government agencies, local residents, business entities, and now we have a link to Arizona State University’s professors, students and design resources.
Participating in this important effort were the Supervisors of the WNRCD, Alisha Phipps from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Kearny Town Manager Anna Flores, Kearny Mayor Sam Hosler, Willie Sommers of the Arizona Forestry Service, Robin Barnes (and others) from ASARCO, representatives of the Morris Land and Cattle Company (including the Rafter Six Ranch), area ranchers, and Chris Wanamaker from the Pinal County Flood District.
The afternoon portion of the meeting brought in 14 senior design students from Arizona State University who are working under the direction of Dr. Chingwen Cheng, PhD, PLA, LEED AP. Cheng is an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at The Design School of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and she is a Senior Sustainability Scientist at the School of Sustainability in ASU. Recently, ASU was named the most innovative university in the United States, and their School of Sustainability is the first of its kind. We are truly lucky to have tapped into this world-class resource.
Back in September of 2015, Debbie Foster had invited me to a seminar held at the Central Arizona College Aravaipa Campus (CAC-Aravaipa) featuring Professor Dan Higgins, PhD from ASU. After his interesting presentation, I approached “Doctor Dan” about getting contacts at ASU’s Design School to help us brainstorm practical ideas for a public park and recreation space along the Gila River where the Kearny River Fire had burned everything out. Dr. Higgins hooked us up with multiple contacts at ASU, and we are pleased that Dr. Cheng agreed to participate.
Kearny Mayor Sam Hosler kicked off the afternoon session with a 20-minute “tour” of our local history.
During this meeting, the local “stakeholders” provided our thoughts and ideas as well as all the “must have” requirements to the ASU students who are charged with providing up to four proposed scenarios for development of a public space along the river. The public area needs to provide a fire break to make the town safer, define convenient access roads to get people to and from the river, and encourage growth of native species of trees and plants to prevent regrowth of the invasive Salt Cedar trees that fueled the recent fires.
Over 50 percent of migrating birds that travel into the United States come north along the San Pedro River watershed. Bird habitat needs to be preserved. In addition, work on the project needs to be scheduled when endangered species like the Willow Flycatcher and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo are not nesting.
Because the Gila River is prone to flooding, all designs need to be “flood friendly” which provides the ASU students with a true “learning laboratory” to test out ideas for a park that might be similar to the green belt that runs through Indian Bend Wash in Scottsdale. Whatever they come up with for Kearny might be applied to other flood-prone areas around the globe, so this project has some real “meat” for the design students. We hope that they can brand their ideas as “the Kearny River Solution” and refer to it during their careers as professional planners and designers.
Everyone had a comment about vandalism so the students will have to figure out ways to provide lighting, monitoring and access control in their designs.
One other constraint is that anything that happens inside the official flood plain needs to be approved by the Pinal County Flood District. Bill Dunn has already met with the Army Corps of Engineers and they appear to not have any objections. This is vital, as the Army Corps of Engineers technically control all navigable waterways within the country.
Stephen Turcotte, Vice-Chair of the WNRCD, brought up the importance that the students establish “ground truth” when laying out their proposed designs. Most of the Gila River maps currently in use by the various county, state and federal agencies are long out of date, and rivers tend to reorient their flows over the years. Stephen was making sure that the students got out along the river and did their own investigations into where, exactly, the river banks are today.
Towards the end of the meeting, Bill Dunn pointed out that, when the Gila River runs low, cattle are likely to cross over, so the proposed river park cannot feature any vegetation that would be harmful. Everybody in the room immediately said “No Oleanders!”
After 4 p.m., Anna Flores brought up the town van, and some of the ranchers provided a “truck pool” to move all the students down along the Gila River to get an orientation from Bill Dunn and others.
Dr. Cheng and the ASU students will be back in Kearny on Feb. 24 to present preliminary assessment of the site for its opportunities and constraints in restoration and recreational plans, engage with the entire community in the design process for getting inputs and feedback on specific design elements for the Town of Kearny and communities along the Gila River. Then, they will present the preliminary proposed designs in Kearny on March 30th to gather more feedback and finalize the design and present in the first week of May at The Design School on ASU’s Tempe campus. Everyone is invited to participate in the design workshops in Kearny and the final presentation in ASU. Please keep reading the Copper Basin News for updates.
To learn more about the Winkelman Natural Resource Conservation District and possibly join them as a local “cooperator” go online to: http://wnrcd.org/
Dr. Cheng is being assisted by Mohsen Garshasby who is a PhD candidate at The Design School in ASU. The senior students involved in this ground-breaking project are: Mitchell Buglewicz, Vincent Chung, Cesar Del Castillo–Horta, Alex Dixon, Edwin Espino, Jacob Guy, Melissa Hernandez, Yuri Lechuga-Robles, Shane Ohlhausen, Jose Quintero, Francisco Rosales, Abdiel Ruiz, Ruiyang Xiao, and Eva Zambrano.