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Forest Chump

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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.

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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 amy-silverman.com.