Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott came to Flagstaff about 20 years ago, attracted to the region’s natural beauty and diverse community. After six years on the Flagstaff City Council, he was elected in 2012 to represent Coconino County’s 1st District on the Board of Supervisors. We talked recently with him about the importance of our forests to the region and why he is passionate about election reform.
Can you tell us a little about your background – what brought you to Flagstaff?
I grew up in Vermont and have a BA in Political Science from Amherst College and an MA in Urban Affairs and Public Policy from the University of Delaware. I have lived in Flagstaff for about 20 years and am a small business owner. I have owned and operated several businesses including shares in the partnership which operated The Orpheum Theater in historic downtown Flagstaff. In addition, for 18 years, my wife and I have run the Flagstaff Community Markets which operates the Sunday morning downtown Farmers Market and the Urban Flea and Artisan Market. My wife Heather is a hospice nurse and our 9-year-old daughter goes to public school in Flagstaff. Like so many of us, I came here because of the amazing landscapes, a vibrant and diverse community which values innovation and participation.
What are you most passionate about as an elected official?
I believe passionately in the importance of public service and creating a democracy that actually addresses the problems that face working families and individuals in our society. Over the course of the 35 years I have been engaged politically, 13 of which I have served in elected office, I have watched how our electoral system, where political parties have become the gatekeepers of elections instead of participants, has produced unfortunately predictable results. I am one of just three elected Independent political officials in the entire State of Arizona. I believe one of the most important topics we need to engage in as a society, is not about a policy or an issue, but rather how we create an electoral system and democracy which serves to engender compromise, focuses on solving problems and creating opportunities, and provides real choices to voters. I am and will continue to be a strong advocate for electoral systems – such as Ranked Choice Voting and Top Two Open Primaries – which move us away from highly ideological, low turnout party-based election systems.
Why did you want to move from city to county representation?
On one level, serving in both the City and County as an elected official are similar in that they both provide the ability to develop personal connections to, and relationships with, the people we serve. Being so close to voters and constituents is one of the unique attributes of local government. Although I enjoyed my two terms with the City, I was really interested in getting more involved in the policies and opportunities around our public lands and the agency partners – such as the National Park Service, US Forest Service, and AZ Game and Fish- that manage those lands. The threat of catastrophic wildfire and post-fire flooding are the number one public safety issues facing Coconino County. I felt it was important to bring perspectives that highlighted the value of our public lands, the economic development opportunities around these lands and support the important regional forest restoration initiatives that are underway in northern Arizona.
What do you see the role of ECONA in regards to the economic health of the region?
ECONA serves as an important link between the public and private sectors. As both a small business owner and an elected official, I understand how important and valuable it is to have collaborative “bridges” between the private and public sectors. ECONA serves to convene governmental entities, utilities, economic development practitioners, and industry to provide strategic and focused navigation for economic development projects.
You are known as a powerful advocate of environmentalism, particularly forest health. How would you describe the importance of the region’s forest and other environmental assets to its economic vitality?
Recreation and visitation to public lands, National Monuments, and National Parks are without question, the number one economic and quality of life driver for Coconino County. The total economic impact of that visitation and recreation is some $1.5 billion for our region. Without healthy and restored forests, we jeopardize the very assets which are the engine of our regional economy. As climate change and drought continue to intensify in our region, it will have profound implications for our landscapes, communities, and economies. Forest restoration is critical to making Coconino County more resilient.
Forest restoration provides significant opportunities to expand our regional economy through the creation and the development of forest industries. Without viable forest industries, restoration efforts will not succeed. I feel I have brought a measure of innovation, creativity and practical strategies to increase the pace of forest restoration efforts. It is my hope that bringing County resources will not only lead to a measurable reduction in the risk of catastrophic wildfire but will also serve as an important component of a diverse and prosperous regional economy.
Anything we should have asked you that we didn’t?
The 2018 Wildfire season is approaching and as winter snowfall totals are some 70% below normal, I urge all residents to sign up for County Emergency Notifications at www.coconino.az.gov/ready and to learn about the importance of creating defensible space around your homes and being prepared for evacuations at http://www.coconino.az.gov/1908/Ready—Set—Go.