By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
McCain's letter stops short of calling for the foresters' heads, but the sound of the swinging ax resonates throughout. McCain concludes: "It is, of course, solely within your discretion to determine whether the actions of these Forest Service officials were consistent with the applicable rules and regulations governing Forest Service personnel and whether their views accurately reflect this matter. I ask only that you take whatever action you deem necessary to ensure that all Forest Service employees are made aware of the policies and priorities of the Forest Service so that they may accurately and responsibly represent the Service at the local and regional level in the future."
McCain has tamed his temper since Mt. Graham; now the threat is merely implicit in the letter, if not stated. Using erroneous statements and innuendo, the senator takes out after three named Forest Service employees: Eleanor Towns and Phoenix foresters Carl Taylor and Emily Garber.
The senator attacks Towns for her comments in a July 10 letter to Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana. Specifically, in her letter Towns estimates that 350,000 acres of Forest Service land would have to be traded in exchange for the state land trust acreage proposed in the Spur Cross trade.
McCain says her estimate is too high, and he's right.
But that was not Towns' fault. She based her estimate on information provided by State Land Commissioner Dennis Wells, who valued the land to be traded at $1 billion. But the land he referred to was the entire 15,000 acres of state trust land around north Scottsdale, rather than the 6,500 acres involved in the trade.
But that was not Wells' fault. He based his estimate on the premise that all 15,000 acres would be protected in the Spur Cross trade, misinformation spread by the developers' supporters.
Towns may have estimated high, but up until the day the deal fell through, no one had yet nailed down firm acreage figures. Estimates of Forest land required for the trade have ranged from 80,000 (McCain's estimate) to 250,000 acres. In any case, the people of the United States would be asked to surrender a significant unidentified land mass. And that is the essence of Towns' objections.
Further, McCain's letter expresses concern that Towns' letter was made public, suggesting repeatedly that this entire process should have taken place behind closed doors, say, the closed doors of the senator's office. That sinister notion alone is far more troubling than any of his allegations against the Forest Service employees.
McCain takes Carl Taylor to task for statements he made to the Payson Roundup in late July. Taylor had been invited by a Payson trail club to speak about land exchange issues, and was asked about Spur Cross--not surprising, since communities all over the state were concerned that Forest land abutting their municipalities would be snatched up for the proposed exchange.
Taylor apparently told the group two things that irked McCain. First, that one of every 10 acres of the Tonto National Forest would be lost as part of the exchange. This estimate was based on Dennis Wells' $1 billion estimate--and was reasonable, under that assumption, which no one had yet challenged. Second, Taylor told the group that the Forest Service would have no say in the lands to be exchanged. That is true, according to draft legislation circulating at the time, which gave the State Land Commission a say in determining the land to be exchanged, but did not offer that privilege to the Forest Service.
And finally, McCain attacks Emily Garber, assistant group leader for lands management in the Tonto, for complaining to the Payson Roundup on September 4 that Forest Service personnel were not invited to some meetings and didn't feel they were included in the decision-making process.
McCain doesn't deny that the Forest Service wasn't invited to every meeting. And observers have noted that both the Forest Service and conservationists were again and again pushed out of Spur Cross trade discussions.
McCain didn't respond to a written request for an interview.
Mike Dombeck hasn't yet responded to McCain's letter, although members of both his Phoenix and Washington, D.C., staffs promise an answer is in the works. Both Dombeck and Eleanor Towns were out of town and unavailable to be interviewed.
Emily Garber predicts Dombeck's letter will be brief. "We really don't have a whole lot to comment on," she says. "The letter itself is primarily going to say that we're fully aware of the ethical conduct that we need to abide by, and stuff like that. We're not going to address the individual things that he talks about in that letter."
Jack Fraser already has. A wildlife biologist by training and president of the McDowell Park Association by title, Fraser heads the coalition of more than a dozen environmental and preservation groups that opposed the Spur Cross Ranch exchange. He got hold of a copy of McCain's letter and fired off a nine-page response last week.
Toward the end of his missive, after painstakingly picking McCain's letter apart, Fraser writes, "All I can say is thank heavens the Forest Service displayed outstanding integrity in sticking to a solid position despite heavy pressure to go along with a bad proposal. . . . The Service has an obligation to the public to uphold the law and to protect the public interest in public lands and that was precisely what it did with respect to the proposed Spur Cross land exchange."