Should North Rim's Season Be Expanded?

Gaelyn Olmsted | Grand Canyon North Rim

Tourism promoters near Grand Canyon National Park are touting the idea of stretching out the North Rim's operating season to allow more people to experience the remote section of the park.

As the Associated Press reported this month, the proposed change comes amid a downward trend in annual snowfall at the North Rim — which currently is open from May 15 to October 15. The 30-year average for snowfall at the North Rim is more than 11 feet a year, but snowfall has been declining over the past decade, according to the National Weather Service.

Tourism officials in Kane County, Utah, which is north of the North Rim, told the AP they'd like the area to be open year-round or most of the year so Kane County can promote itself as a "four-season destination." For now, they say they'd like to add a couple of weeks to both ends of the North Rim's current season.

Park officials told the AP that expanding the season would require hiring workers for longer stints, upgrading the North Rim's water system, weatherizing cabins and providing more snowplow resources.

A meeting is planned for October to discuss the idea of lengthening the North Rim season, but a Kane County official told the AP major changes are not expected for five to 10 years.

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SR 260 Expansion Set for Fall Completion

One of the new roundabouts on State Route 260 between Camp Verde and Cottonwood. | Courtesy of Arizona Department of Transportation

From our friends at the Arizona Department of Transportation:

PHOENIX – Work on the 9-mile State Route 260 widening project that will enhance travel and mobility between Camp Verde and Cottonwood is in the final stages leading up to completion this fall.

Currently, traffic is using one lane in each direction along the new alignment and using all seven roundabout intersections between Interstate 17 and Thousand Trails Road. Crews are finishing the curbs of roundabouts and installing permanent road signs along the project area.

Once the curbs and signs are complete, crews will add another layer of pavement to the highway. This process will take several weeks. After that, crews will lay the top layer of pavement known as friction course. They will then return a few weeks after that to lay down permanent striping.

In addition to the seven roundabout intersections, the widening project also features a multiuse path between Wilshire and Cherry Creek roads that was completed in May and a new bridge over Cherry Creek that was completed in January.

For more information on this $62 million project, visit azdot.gov/projects and click on North Central District.

Real-time highway conditions are available on ADOT’s Arizona Traveler Information site at az511.gov, by calling 511 and through ADOT’s Twitter feed, @ArizonaDOT. When a freeway closure or other major traffic event occurs, our free app available at ADOTAlerts.com will send critical information directly to app users in affected areas – where possible, in advance of alternate routes.

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ASU Makes Sierra Club 'Cool Schools' List

Tempe Town Lake is the centerpiece of the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, where Arizona State University's main campus is located. | Dana Smith Northey

The national magazine of the Sierra Club says Arizona's largest university is also one of the greenest colleges around.

Sierra magazine, in its annual "Cool Schools" ranking released late last month, ranked Arizona State University fifth in the country out of 269 schools that participated in the ranking of North America's greenest colleges and universities.

The organization says the schools ranked in the top 20 "have displayed a deep and thorough commitment to protecting the environment, addressing climate issues, and encouraging environmental responsibilities."

Researchers for the Sierra Club ranked the universities based on their commitment to high environmental standards, the group says.

The top spot on the list was a tie between the University of California-Irvine and Vermont's Green Mountain College. There were no other Arizona schools on the list, but others in the region included Colorado State University (fourth), California State University-Chico (ninth), Santa Clara University (13th) and Loyola Marymount University (19th).

You can view the full rankings and learn about each of the schools on the list on the Sierra Club's website.

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'The Thing' Opens Expanded Museum

The Thing | Via Facebook

If you've driven Interstate 10 in Southeastern Arizona, you've seen the billboards for "The Thing," the roadside attraction 17 miles east of Benson. Maybe you've even stopped to try to answer the question on those billboards: "What Is It?" (We're not exactly sure ourselves.)

Now, the attraction's operators have opened an expanded museum to give motorists more reasons to pull off the road.

Bowlin Travel Centers says the new 30,000-square-foot facility is more than three times as big as the previous museum, which was made up of several buildings. It also is climate-controlled and incorporates the site's Dairy Queen restaurant, an expanded retail space and more, the group says.

The new retail space offers handcrafted Indian jewelry, Southwestern merchandise and museum souvenirs.

"The Thing" dates to the late 1960s, when Thomas Binkley Prince built a tourist stop around his colleciton of oddities and unique items. It's since been the subject of numerous news stories, many of which attempt to identify what "The Thing" is. We won't bother. You'll just have to check it out for yourself.

For more information on "The Thing," visit www.bowlinsthething.com.

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Tucson Mustang Club Preserves an American Icon

Courtesy of Southern Arizona Mustang Club

Bold. Strong. Hot-blooded. Exciting. Back in 1965, this was how Ford described the Mustang in one of its first commercials for the model. Surely, members of one of the oldest Mustang clubs in the world would describe it in just the same way.

Few products in recent American history have reached the Mustang's iconic status. The sporty, affordable vehicle became an instant success the day it was released in 1964, and 22,000 wer sold in just 24 hours. Since then, the car has shaped the automobile industry, appeared in hundreds of films, and become popular among gearheads and casual drivers alike.

Just a year after the Mustang came to market, a handful of Mustang lovers in Tucson formed the Southern Arizona Mustang Club (SAMC), and in its 52-year history, the club has grown from 20 members to 280. Today, some of the original members still belong to the SAMC, but the club continues to recruit new members who own all different models of Mustangs.

Although hundreds of Mustang clubs have been formed worldwide, few are as longstanding as the SAMC. In a recent article, the club was recognized by Ford as the world’s oldest Mustang club — a title its members are proud of.

Each month, members take their Mustangs on scenic cruises around Tucson, host meet-ups and participate in fundraising events for local charities and schools. They also sponsor car shows throughout the year, including Fords on Fourth, a popular show open to owners of all Ford models. The show, now going on its 12th year, is held annually in March and takes place in Tucson’s historic Fourth Avenue district.

Aaron Sapienza, current president of the SAMC, says people come from all over the country to attend and participate in the show. Like many of the group's events, all proceeds from Fords on Fourth benefit local charities. This year, the SAMC opened the show to 275 car owners and sold out. Next year, they’ve decided to increase the show to 300 participants.

Although it’s the Mustang that brought the members of the SAMC together, Sapienza says the club has become much more than that over the years.

“It’s not so much about the cars,” Sapienza said. “The people that we have in the club are just fantastic people. I can’t say enough about them. The Mustang is a great car, and it’s an American icon, but it’s the people that really make the club. Anybody could have a Mustang club, but it’s all about the people who are in it. It’s like a big family to us.”

To learn more about the Southern Arizona Mustang Club, visit www.southernarizonamustangclub.org or find the club on Facebook.

— Emily Balli

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Paving of South Mountain Freeway Begins

Courtesy of Arizona Department of Transportation

From our friends at the Arizona Department of Transportation:

PHOENIX – You’ve got to start somewhere.

And for the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway, “somewhere” is near Elliot Road and 59th Avenue in Laveen, where the first lane mile of pavement is in place for the state’s largest single highway project ever.

Laying pavement began in late July and has occurred in one of the flattest stretches of the South Mountain Freeway project, from north of Estrella Drive to Olney Avenue.

Mainline paving throughout the project will continue until just prior to the opening of the 22-mile freeway by late 2019. Paving will begin later this summer in the Pecos segment east of 40th Street in Ahwatukee.

“This is a huge milestone for the South Mountain Freeway project,” said Rob Samour, ADOT’s senior deputy state engineer for major projects. “The start of paving brings us that much closer to delivering traffic relief to Phoenix motorists and providing a much-needed alternative to I-10 to travel between opposite ends of the Valley.”

A 4-inch-thick asphalt base has been paved, and additional layers of pavement will follow.

To date, paving has not required any traffic restrictions.

The work involves several dump trucks delivering the asphalt, paving machines spreading it and rollers compacting it. Connect 202 Partners, the developer of the South Mountain Freeway project, can put down up to 3,500 tons of asphalt per day with a single paving pass. 

The first step toward paving is creating an embankment and compacting it to the designed height needed for the future roadway. Approximately 10 million cubic yards of earth, the equivalent of more than 800,000 truckloads and enough to fill University of Phoenix Stadium 13 times, is being hauled and compacted for the project. Once the earthwork is finished in an area, paving can begin.

Following the paving, crews will add lighting, curbs and gutters, signage and landscaping and complete other related work.

The South Mountain Freeway, which is scheduled to open in late 2019, will provide a long-planned direct link between the East Valley and West Valley and a much-needed alternative to Interstate 10 through downtown Phoenix. Approved by Maricopa County voters in 1985 and again in 2004 as part of a comprehensive regional transportation plan, it will complete the Loop 202 and Loop 101 freeway system.

You can stay informed about the South Mountain Freeway project and sign up for updates and weekly traffic alerts at SouthMountainFreeway.com.

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ASU Will Offer Graduate Degree in World War II Studies

Courtesy of Arizona State University

Arizona's largest university is partnering with a New Orleans museum to offer the nation's first graduate degree in World War II studies.

Arizona State University and the National WWII Museum say classes for the online master's degree program will begin in January and will feature five professors from the museum and three from the university.

The classes will feature video lectures and artifacts from the museum's archives, according to a news release.

"The museum's mission has always been to educate future generations on the American experience in the war that changed the world," Gemma Birnbaum, director of the museum's media and education center, said in the news release. "By partnering with Arizona State University, we are offering students the unique opportunity to learn from leading experts who can provide the most comprehensive view of a global conflict that still shapes our society and political structures today."

For more information on the program, visit ASU's website.

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Arizona Could Add 1 Million Residents by 2026

Cathy Franklin | Phoenix

A new report projects that Arizona will grow by 1 million residents and add 500,000 new jobs in the next eight years.

As The Arizona Republic reported this month, the estimate by the state's Office of Economic Opportunity indicates that the Grand Canyon State will add nearly 543,000 new net jobs by 2026. The projection is based on a 10-year estimate that includes this year and last year, The Republic reported.

That rate of jobs growth would be a 1.7 percent annual growth rate, more than double the 0.7 percent annual growth rate expected for the country as a whole during that time, The Republic reported.

The report also predicted that Arizona's population of 7.1 million will increase to 8.1 million by 2026. Most of that growth will be in the Phoenix metro area, which will grow from 4.8 million residents to 5.5 million, according to the report.

Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, and Yavapai County, which includes much of the Verde Valley, could see the highest rates of jobs growth, The Republic reported.

Such rates would be a marked increase from the 10-year period that ended in 2016. In that period, Arizona averaged just 0.2 percent jobs growth annually, according to the report.

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Monsoon Storms Could Cause Flooding on Mount Graham

Stan Lowery | Mount Graham

Officials are warning that last year's wildfire on Mount Graham could cause monsoon flooding on the Southeastern Arizona peak.

The lightning-caused Frye Fire burned 48,000 acres in the Pinaleño Mountains last year. Now, officials from the Coronado National Forest told the Associated Press, runoff in areas where the vegetation was burned could lead to flooding on State Route 366 (the Swift Trail), the only highway up the mountain.

Emergency road closures are possible if monsoon storms lead to flooding, forest officials told the AP. Clearing the road could take hours, and drivers should be prepared for temporary delays.

The wildfire also decimated the range's population of Mount Graham red squirrels, which exist nowhere else in the wild. A census late last year estimated there were only 35 squirrels left — down from 250 the previous year.

If you're looking for a scenic drive in the Pinaleños that's more rugged but was less affected by the Frye Fire, check out Tripp Canyon Road, which climbs the range's western flank. A high-clearance vehicle is required, and you'll need four-wheel-drive to make it all the way to the top.

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Officials Seek Spur Cross Ranch Toad Thieves

Sonoran Desert toad | Bighouse2015 (via Creative Commons)

Three people were photographed taking Sonoran Desert toads from a Phoenix-area preserve last month, and officials are asking the public for help identifying the thieves.

As azfamily.com reported, the incident occurred July 19 at Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek, northeast of Phoenix. A trail camera captured the thieves, two men and a woman, putting the toads in plastic bags about two hours after the conservation area had closed for the night.

The toads are not a protected species, which means they can be collected from the wild by anyone with a fishing license, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department. However, because the toads were in a conservation area administered by Maricopa County, the thieves violated a county ordinance by removing them without permission, officials told azfamily.com.

It's not clear why the toads were taken, but Sonoran Desert toads, which are among the largest toads in North America, secrete toxins that have hallucinogenic properties. A Banner Health doctor told azfamily.com that the amphibians are often victims of "toad licking," which can be extremely dangerous.

Visit Spur Cross Ranch Recreation Area's Facebook page to see the videos of the toad thieves (be advised that the videos contain profane language). If you recognize anyone in the videos, call the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office at 602-876-1000.

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