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.

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."

One would hope Mike Dombeck feels the same way.

When the land swap fell through, the owners of Spur Cross Ranch vowed to bring on the bulldozers. So far, though, there's been no cactus mowing, thanks to a zigzag of time-chomping zoning lawsuits tying up the process.

With the Senate election behind him and the pressing need for both kinds of Green, will John McCain try to resurrect the Spur Cross exchange once again to help polish up his Teddy Roosevelt-savior-of-the-environment pose?

"We're watchful to see if anything's going to happen, but we haven't seen any indication that anything's going on," Emily Garber says. "But we'd probably be the last to know."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at