Senator John McCain doesn't get high ratings from the League of Conservation Voters or the Sierra Club, but he and environmentalists have worked together for years to limit noise over the Grand Canyon. Concern about canyon overflights began in the mid-'80s as a debate over safety, but once that matter was resolved, environmentalists began complaining about noise pollution. McCain agreed and fought to pass the 1987 National Park Overflights Act.
So Rob Smith, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, was perplexed in October when McCain offered a measure on the Senate floor that would have gutted much of the 1987 law. The language, offered as an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration appropriations bill, said that if the FAA did not write guidelines for quiet technology within nine months, all aircraft would be deemed quiet, and thus would be free of many current curfew and flight-path restrictions.
Ultimately, McCain revised the provision to make the environmentalists happy, but only after they -- along with National Park Service officials and members of the Havasupai tribe -- protested loudly. Smith says they first tried the direct approach, but in vain.
"We've tried meeting with [McCain's] office several times, with him and with his top staff out here, and scheduled appointments are canceled, if they're made at all," he says.
Senate Commerce Committee staff director Mark Buse says the senator hasn't changed his mind at all, that bad timing was to blame for the failure to inform the Sierra Club and other overflight critics.
"The amendment was done at the last minute on the Senate floor as part of a larger package," Buse says. "You know, the bill passed like 20 minutes later. When you are on the Senate floor, you cannot just tell the senators -- and there was a variety of senators there -- oh, by the way, excuse me, senators, all of you, I'm going to go and call a lobbyist and talk to them about this. That's not the way Senator McCain operates. It was just done. Now, Senator McCain never meant that as a shift in his policy, and it wasn't. I think it's inaccurate to view a piece of a process as a shift. I think to be fair you have to look at the entire process and the result at the end of the day."
Buse insists the senator has not shifted his position on Grand Canyon overflights, but Smith is not so sure. Why would an advocate of Grand Canyon serenity introduce what Smith sees as incredibly damaging legislation?
"That's mysterious," Smith says. "It seemed that maybe he wasn't paying close enough attention to the details, or [his staff] was listening to the air-tour operators more than they were to the National Park Service."
A clue to why McCain might have offered that amendment is contained within the pages of the United States Air Tour Association Web site, at www.usata.com.
McCain and tour operators have always been at odds over the 1987 overflight law, and for years, representatives of the air tour industry had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate compromises with McCain, who now, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, oversees the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA shares responsibility with the National Park Service for implementing the law.
In recent years, the United States Air Tour Association -- which represents more than 50 air tour operators from around the country, including a handful from the Grand Canyon -- stepped up its lobbying efforts, according to periodic newsletters posted on the USATA Web site.
USATA was not just interested in the requirements that fliers over the Grand Canyon be quieter, but also with rules and legislation dealing with overflights nationwide. In any case, they were eager to get the senator's ear.
From the February 1998 USATA "Air Tour News":
JIM SANTINI'S WASHINGTON CONGRESSIONAL REPORT
. . . Thanks to supportive USATA members (Jim Petty, Lash Larew, Alan Stephen, Ron Williams and Elling Halvorson) along with USATA President Steve Bassett, USATA will be attending an upscale Washington, DC fundraiser on February 11 for our favorite Congressional nemesis Chairman John McCain. Steve, industry leaders and I believe that we still must do all we can to keep the communication door open with Chairman McCain and the Commerce Committee Aviation Subcommittee Counsel, Ann Hodges. . . . We will continue to bang on the McCain door hoping someday to get inside his head with our rationale appeals. . . .
And from "1998 -- the year in review," by USATA President Steve Bassett:
What a year 1998 has been! Big Mac and Sammy eclipse the 37-year old single season home run record of Roger Maris. Elway finally wins a Super Bowl. Michael wins yet another title. And, the air tour industry cuts a good deal with Senator John McCain. Is life good, or what? . . . A number of USATA members with their own well-cultivated access to key Members of Congress played a pivotal role in the proceedings of the past two years. One was Elling Halvorson (Papillon Airways) who, among other things . . . contributed funds numerous times to various Congressional fundraising efforts which helped USATA maintain much-needed access to key Members of Congress including Arizona Senator John McCain. . . .
. . . February, 1998 -- McCain Fundraiser Opens Dialogue
. . . USATA/Bassett attended a private dinner/fundraiser in Washington for Senator McCain. This was made possible by political contributions from a number of key USATA members. McCain and Bassett spoke on three occasions with the Senator acknowledging the value of the air tour industry and being genuinely appreciate [sic] of USATA's participation at the event. Later in the spring, air tour operators in Arizona and Nevada attended another fundraiser for Senator McCain in Arizona to reinforce the fact that the industry was willing to support him under the right conditions. . . .
An analysis of McCain's campaign filings for his 1998 Senate and current presidential campaign reveals that USATA members have donated at least $6,250 to McCain, with $2,500 of it coming from Elling Halvorson and his daughter, Brenda.
"We've given to, I think, all the people who have been running, at least anyone who is halfway friendly toward our point of view or will listen to us. I think that's pretty typical," Elling Halvorson says in a phone interview from Seattle, where his company is headquartered.
Reached in Las Vegas last week, Steve Bassett says it took more than money to get McCain to negotiate.
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"It took us a long time to get him to the point where he'd meet with us, and I don't mean a couple weeks," Bassett says. ". . . It has taken years to do that. And people. It took new people, it took people he could trust, to try and work with him. But over time, I think the man trusts us. I think he understands we really have been willing over the last five or 10 years to find the middle ground. . . . He didn't abandon his environmental friends. He never did that. He just said, 'These guys are willing to come to the middle. I expect you, the environmental community, to do the same thing.'"
On the phone, Bassett is less ebullient than he was on the Internet about the possible influence his group's contributions had on the senator.
"If anything it [contributions] gave us the opportunity for him to know who we were," he says. "And it didn't do any more than that, and you never never expect a political contribution to do any more than that. We're not a huge industry or a huge corporation. We're not going to have any influence at all with political donations. None whatsoever. . . . We amount to nothing in comparison to others, I'm sure, who are donating to all of them.
"But what it does do is it lets him know, number one, we are willing to support. And somebody's got to take the first step in that. And it gives us the opportunity to be recognizable to him so that when we do ask for a meeting, as long as we continue to play fair, then the man met with us and has played fair with us. And we never wanted any more than that from him, and certainly we're not big enough that we could get any more. . . . I ain't Microsoft."