Saving Private Interests

John McCain says he wants to save Spur Cross Ranch. Has he really gone Green, or is he just scrounging for greenbacks from a Cincinnati fat cat?

Enter Senator John McCain. Recollections of people close to the issue suggest that McCain first became involved behind the scenes in the Spur Cross issue when the county was considering the rezoning case in 1996. But the senator didn't act publicly until February 1997, when he asked Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to look into local preservationists' charges that endangered wildlife and Native American ruins would be threatened by the proposed development. In July 1997, as the litigation between Cave Creek and Great American continued to churn, McCain wrote to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, suggesting that the federal government buy Spur Cross Ranch and preserve the land.

Then the senator and the landowners came up with a better idea: a land swap. Initially, the plan was to incorporate Spur Cross Ranch into the Tonto National Forest. In exchange, Great American, et al., would get a 3,000-acre parcel of the Tonto on Scottsdale's border. Scottsdale--which has been trying to preserve that parcel, not develop it--initially resisted. So the plan became more complicated, in an attempt to please everyone.

The current proposal, boiled down:
Scottsdale would agree to the Spur Cross-Tonto exchange. As a reward, a hunk of land just south of the traded Tonto land would be added to the forest. That hunk belongs to the Arizona State Land Trust, which is mandated by law to turn a profit on it; as forest land, it would be preserved. Another piece of state land adjacent to Spur Cross would also be protected.

In exchange for its land, the State Land Trust gets comparably priced federal land and/or buildings somewhere in Arizona, with the specific property to be determined later. (See map on page 16 for details.)

The towns of Cave Creek and Carefree are in favor. Carefree's approval came with Lang's promise to help finance a road extension to the tune of $1 million. And so it's up to Scottsdale. If Scottsdale approves, McCain will introduce legislation authorizing the trade.

And Spur Cross Ranch will be saved, thanks to John McCain.
Jack Fraser, president of the McDowell Park Association, heads a coalition of environmentalist and preservation groups that has been studying the proposed land trade.

A wildlife biologist by training, Fraser has compiled every piece of correspondence, every memo, every document he can get his hands on, regarding the proposed trade. He knows the issue well and has been involved in preservation efforts in Arizona for many years.

Fraser's been amazed by how involved McCain and his Arizona chief of staff, Deb Gullett, have been in the Spur Cross issue. McCain generally reserves his breath for talk of Bosnia and tobacco and campaign finance reform--not local squabbles here at home.

Can he remember another local environmental issue, Fraser is asked, in which Senator McCain became so intimately involved?

"Yeah," comes the immediate reply. "Mount Graham."

Jack Fraser's words drip with irony. Yes, John McCain was at the heart of legislation passed in 1988 to put telescopes atop Mount Graham near Safford. Arizona environmentalists fought the move for years and still lambaste McCain for it.

The environmentalists who oppose the Spur Cross trade have dubbed the proposal Mount Graham Deux, and the two are similar, in three respects.

If the Spur Cross legislation is introduced, it will be in the waning days of Congress. Such was the case with McCain's Mount Graham legislation, which slipped through, literally in the final hours of the 100th Congress.

The Mount Graham legislation is similar, too, because, simply put, it exempted the telescope builders from environmental law.

Finally, an ugly episode arose during the Mount Graham lawmaking process in which it was alleged that John McCain threatened the job of a Forest Service employee who opposed his legislation. McCain has always denied that his call to the employee was "threatening." Again McCain is ignoring Forest Service opinions.

Mount Graham is the best-known of McCain's anti-environmental stands, but it's not the only one. Every year, the senator gets dismal ratings by the national League of Conservation Voters. Since he was first elected to Congress in 1982 (where the league gave him a notable 0 percent rating his first year), McCain has never ranked above 29 percent in the ratings, for which the league examines a handful of legislative votes that determine a lawmaker's degree of friendliness to the environment. Pro-Green senators typically rank in the 80s or above.

That 29 percent--McCain's all-time high--came just last year. The rapid rise of his environmental consciousness seems to coincide dramatically with the growth of his prospects to run for U.S. president. Any pollster will tell you: If McCain wants to be president, he needs to get Green--and fast.

John McCain and his staff have spent the past several years retooling the senator into a man Americans would like to see as their president. They've done a masterful job. Today, McCain is hailed as a maverick--an enemy of tobacco companies and a champion of campaign finance reform. He's an expert in foreign policy and the chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce committee. He even controls his temper most of the time.

The finishing touch? Paint him green. Americans want an environmentalist as their leader. According to a nationwide poll conducted in 1997 by Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin, 68 percent of Americans consider themselves "environmentalists."

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