Forest Chump

Spur Cross Ranch must've looked as good to John McCain as prickly-pear fruit does to a hungry javelina.

Last year about this time, Arizona's senior senator toured the 2,250 acres of pristine Sonoran desert on the northern end of Cave Creek abutting the Tonto National Forest, home to endangered wildlife and Native American ruins and one of the last year-round creeks in Maricopa County. McCain immediately vowed to rescue the tract from its master-planned-golf-course-and-custom-home-community fate.

First impression was that John McCain was standing up for the environment. Year after year, the League of Conservation Voters has given McCain gutter ratings, which don't do much for his presidential ambitions. McCain's pose as political maverick would be well-served by his acting like he'd developed an environmental conscience. Saving Spur Cross looked like a sure way to do that.

But as McCain's plan to save the land began to jell--and as just about every environmentalist and preservationist in the state lined up against that plan--it became clear that the deal would not be easy. And it started looking as though McCain's cactus-hugger stance was less about saving precious natural resources and cultural artifacts, than it was about pleasing a developer.

One of the Spur Cross Ranch investors is Cincinnati's Great American Life Insurance, run by Carl Lindner, one-time mentor to Charlie Keating and one of the country's most generous contributors to national political parties and presidential bids.

Whether McCain's interests were about being Green or raising greenbacks, the bottom line was the same: Spur Cross owners stood to get value-added protections for their development plans, paid for by Arizona taxpayers and the people of the United States. By last summer, what emerged was a plan so complicated you would need a doctorate in land swapology and a topo map to chart the nuances. What it boils down to is this:

Spur Cross Ranch would be incorporated into Tonto National Forest.
Spur Cross Ranch's owners would get a 3,000-acre hunk of the Tonto, along Scottsdale's border.

Scottsdale, which previously wanted to see that hunk preserved, would get something else: A Scottsdale-adjacent 6,500-acre chunk of Arizona State Trust land, mandated by law to be sold for a profit, would become Tonto Forest land, and thus be preserved.

In exchange for giving up its land, the state trust would get comparably priced federal land and/or buildings somewhere in Arizona, with the specific property to be determined later.

The proposal raised hackles at the U.S. Forest Service.
Forestry officials, including Eleanor Towns, the new head of the service's southwest region, murmured her concerns about the proposed trade, which would have to get initial approval from Congress before it could be hammered out and executed.

Essentially, the Forest Service doesn't want Spur Cross Ranch. Although the ranch land abuts the forest, its terrain is different from the forest land. That, and the fact that it's so close to civilization--and the intruders who would have to be policed--would make protecting Spur Cross an expensive, cumbersome task for the Forest Service.

More significant, though, were concerns about the last part of the plan--the "to be determined later" part, the undesignated land clause. No one on McCain's negotiating team could come up with a suitable parcel of forest land to trade for the state trust land. Because the designated state land is among the most valuable Arizona owns, it was estimated that the national forest could lose an enormous parcel in the trade, and no one even knew where.

McCain and his staff made it clear that they didn't give a jackelope's ass whether the Forest Service liked the deal or not. They were concerned with the rights of the Spur Cross owners and the affected municipalities--Cave Creek, Carefree and Scottsdale. By last summer, all but Scottsdale had signed on and the trade was just a few twisted arms away from a done deal. Then Eleanor Towns wrote a three-page letter to Governor Jane Hull detailing the Forest Service's firm opposition to the plan.

That letter, coupled with continuing opposition from conservation groups, finally convinced the developer and McCain that it wasn't worth the headache. In a flurry of sighs, whines and finger-pointing, the developer pulled the plug on the deal in early September. McCain declared the proposal a lost cause.

Left alone with his thoughts and, no doubt, his forsakenness for the environment, the senator apparently began to rage inside. And when something gets under Senator McCain's skin, someone else usually winds up getting bopped.

Remember the 1989 Mt. Graham fiasco? That's when the senator told a forest supervisor that if he didn't cooperate on McCain's pet project to put telescopes atop Mt. Graham near Tucson, he "would be the shortest-tenured forest supervisor in the history of the Forest Service," according to what a forester told federal investigators.

The Spur Cross failure apparently sent the senator into a similarly recriminating abyss of fury. But this time he diplomatically contained his ire in a letter.

In late September McCain wrote to Eleanor Towns' boss, U.S. Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck, in essence tattling on Towns and her underlings for publicly going against the Spur Cross proposal. He accused them of spreading misinformation, being inflexible and acting against the public benefit.

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