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?

Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, is defined by his environmental activism the way John McCain is defined by his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Local tree huggers--or cactus huggers, as the pejorative goes in the desert--haven't been quick to embrace John McCain. They remember Mount Graham, and they remember the contentious relationship they've had with McCain over the past 16 years.

McCain's only substantial overtures at preservation have been in the area of Grand Canyon overflights. But even on that issue, the Sierra Club finds fault with his proposals. In 1996, McCain took to the media to tout himself as nature boy in a column he wrote for the New York Times called "Nature Is Not a Liberal Plot." But that just drew giggles and eye-rolling from folks who know John McCain's record on the environment. The green keeps flaking off of John McCain. He needs a high-profile, save-the-day environmental cause he can call his own and offer up against Al Gore's chatter about global warming.

He needs a Spur Cross Ranch.

There's a fundamental flaw in John McCain's selection of the proposed Spur Cross Ranch land trade to improve his environmental record: The trade will not improve the environment--at least, not according to the environmental, preservation and recreational groups that have lined up against the proposal. As of July 31, that list includes the Arizona League of Conservation Voters, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Keep Sedona Beautiful Inc., Maricopa Audubon Society, McDowell Park Association, McDowell Sonoran Land Trust, Public Lands Foundation, Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, Wildlife Conservation Advisory Council, Grand Canyon Trust, Arizona Horseman's Association, Citizens for Public Representation and Trailhead Sports. Even a number of government bureaucrats--willing to risk incurring McCain's famed wrath--have expressed concern about the proposed land trade, including representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission and the former state land commissioner, Jean Hassell.

Why? The answer is as complicated as the proposed trade. Everyone involved agrees that Spur Cross Ranch should be preserved. The consensus ends there.

The U.S. Forest Service does not want Spur Cross Ranch added to the Tonto National Forest; foresters say they do not have the resources to properly care for the land.

A number of parties are opposed to developing the piece of the Tonto that Great American, et al., would receive in the trade.

In 1994, the City of Scottsdale specifically requested that forest land adjacent to its borders, including the parcel now up for exchange, be preserved.

Preservationists like Jack Fraser say the development of the land would endanger the wildlife--mountain lions, bobcats, snakes, lizards and more--now living there and in the land directly south. Fraser says the proposed half-mile "wildlife corridor" offered by the developers is not sufficient.

Many people in Scottsdale think that switching one tract of state trust land (parcel 4 on the map) to forest land--thus preserving it forever--is an empty gesture. Carla, administrator of the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust, insists that land does not need to be incorporated into the Tonto because no one wants to develop it.

And finally, there is the "wild card," the as-yet-undesignated federal real estate that would be traded to the state land trust and most likely sold for development. Because the land could be anywhere in Arizona, rumors are flying--from Payson to Mesa to Sedona--about where it might be. Not surprisingly, the Forest Service is opposed to that open-ended proposal. Because the estimated value of the state land adjacent to Scottsdale is so high ($150 million), estimates of the size of comparably priced tracts of federal land range from 20,000 to as many as 300,000 acres.

That is likely a popular notion to the state's developers--but perhaps, on the whole, not so attractive to the land's owners, the people of the United States of America.

And then there are the intricacies of the proposal itself. A draft of the legislation that would authorize the land trade has been floating around the northeast Valley for weeks. Included in it is a provision that would quietly usher in a brand-new mechanism for future state/federal land swaps in Arizona.

Environmentalists are frantic over that provision, pointing out that three times in the past decade, Arizonans have rejected ballot proposals asking for their wholesale approval of such trades.

The word on the street is that the provision will come out of the next draft of the legislation, but there are no guarantees it will--or that it won't be slipped back in before the bill becomes law.

Another hot spot has been concern over whether the owners of Spur Cross would be required to follow environmental laws. Early drafts of the legislation included exemptions from the need to obtain an Environmental Impact Statement on the Tonto Forest land proposed for development. The most recent EIS is from the mid-1980s. At Scottsdale's July 14 public feel-good meeting, the developers assured Scottsdale City Council that existing environmental laws would be followed. But, for now, there is no guarantee.

And McCain's Deb Gullett stepped into the fray over that argument at Scottsdale's July 14 public meeting, expressing her anger that anyone would dare to think that John McCain would champion legislation that exempted the development from environmental law.

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