Saving Private Interests

Almost 200 people are gathered at Scottsdale City Hall on a mid-July afternoon for what Mayor Sam Campana blissfully has dubbed an "information workshop" on the city's latest conundrum: the proposed Spur Cross Ranch land exchange.

Spur Cross Ranch is not actually in Scottsdale, but the proposed trade that would save the undeveloped parcel of Sonoran desert in north Cave Creek--a complicated three-way exchange of private, federal and state lands--allows for the development of a hunk of the Tonto National Forest adjacent to Scottsdale.

U.S. Senator John McCain has agreed to shepherd legislation authorizing the proposal through Congress, but only if the communities of Cave Creek, Carefree and Scottsdale agree to the deal. Earlier in the summer, a peeved-sounding McCain sent out a press release saying he was abandoning the proposal because Scottsdale wouldn't support it. Actually, he was only calling Scottsdale's bluff. Scottsdale remains the last holdout--hence, today's gathering.

In the past few months, the Spur Cross debate has grown ugly, pitting preservationist against developer and government bureaucrat against politician and--oh dear!--Scottsdalian against Scottsdalian, but Campana is determined to make this public meeting a beautiful experience. There will be no votes tonight, no yelling and screaming, just friendly dialogue. Bottled water and white chocolate macadamia nut cookies are served, and everyone thanks everyone else effusively for the opportunity to speak. And speak. And speak.

Well into the seven-hour hearing, Deb Gullett steps to the podium--and the temperature in the council chambers drops about 20 degrees. Gullett, who runs Senator John McCain's Arizona offices, tries to adopt the Scottsdale way; she smiles, but she still just looks annoyed.

Gullett is brief. "I need to tell you, the clock is ticking," she warns, referring to the dwindling days of the 105th Congress, which is about to recess for August and then again, for the fall elections, October 9. She continues, stressing Senator John McCain's leadership on the celebrated land-trade scheme that he must now push through Congress. "Although my boss Senator McCain is an incredibly skilled legislator," she says, "introducing this legislation, having hearings on it, getting it through both the House and the Senate and getting it signed by the President of the United States in two months is a short time frame." She leaves little doubt that John McCain is out to save Spur Cross Ranch.

After whizzing through a number of bullet points, Gullett turns to leave the podium. Wait, she's told. Councilwoman Mary Manross has a question.

Manross is so demure she can barely be heard, even with a microphone. "What is the urgency that it must be done this session?" she wonders, adding the question that is probably on the minds of a lot of people in the room: "Why not next session?"

That's a difficult question to answer.
The effort to save Spur Cross Ranch is a complicated thing. It involves wildlife habitats, riparian ecosystems, archaeological ruins, a real estate development, three lawsuits, three municipalities, the state of Arizona, the federal government, a multimillionaire investor and international businessman with political connections. And Senator John McCain. Before most people knew what Spur Cross was, McCain had announced his intention to save it. With a political record thin on environmental accomplishment, McCain initially surprised many in the Green movement. But it didn't take the enviros long to figure out what he was really up to--it has something to do with presidential politics. Meanwhile, McCain has learned one thing: It's not easy being Green.

In ancient times, the Hohokam lived on the land now known as Spur Cross Ranch. In modern times, the land has belonged to a Scottsdale family called Dreiseszun and a Cincinnati business, Great American Life Insurance. In the 1980s, the owners of Spur Cross sold the 2,000-plus-acre parcel--a Maricopa County island, abutting the Tonto National Forest to the north and the town of Cave Creek to the south--to a businessman named J.R. Norton. He had the land zoned for housing subdivisions, but he never got a chance to develop it. Norton, whose claim to fame is that he served as agriculture secretary in the Reagan Administration for all of five days, lost the property in a bankruptcy foreclosure during the Arizona real estate bust, and the original owners got it back.

Little is known about family scion Herbert Dreiseszun, other than that he's a longtime Arizonan.

Great American is run by Carl Lindner, the 78-year-old multimillionaire who also runs Chiquita Brands International and American Financial Corporation, and whose family controls--among other interests--United Dairy Farmers. Lindner, who is from Cincinnati, mentored another famous Ohioan, Charlie Keating.

The ownership of Spur Cross today: Great American Life, 70 percent; Scottsdale businessman Herbert Dreiseszun and his family trusts, 30 percent.

In 1996, talk arose about the possibility of finally developing Spur Cross Ranch. Scottsdale developer John Lang--who had cut a deal to buy the property once zoning issues were resolved--wanted to put more than 600 houses, a resort and an 18-hole golf course on the land, and the owners approached the county regarding rezoning the property. The town of Cave Creek opposed the idea, and quickly voted to annex Spur Cross Ranch. That made any county zoning null and void, and has led to a series of lawsuits filed against the town by the land's owners.

Enter Senator John McCain. Recollections of people close to the issue suggest that McCain first became involved behind the scenes in the Spur Cross issue when the county was considering the rezoning case in 1996. But the senator didn't act publicly until February 1997, when he asked Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to look into local preservationists' charges that endangered wildlife and Native American ruins would be threatened by the proposed development. In July 1997, as the litigation between Cave Creek and Great American continued to churn, McCain wrote to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, suggesting that the federal government buy Spur Cross Ranch and preserve the land.

Then the senator and the landowners came up with a better idea: a land swap. Initially, the plan was to incorporate Spur Cross Ranch into the Tonto National Forest. In exchange, Great American, et al., would get a 3,000-acre parcel of the Tonto on Scottsdale's border. Scottsdale--which has been trying to preserve that parcel, not develop it--initially resisted. So the plan became more complicated, in an attempt to please everyone.

The current proposal, boiled down:
Scottsdale would agree to the Spur Cross-Tonto exchange. As a reward, a hunk of land just south of the traded Tonto land would be added to the forest. That hunk belongs to the Arizona State Land Trust, which is mandated by law to turn a profit on it; as forest land, it would be preserved. Another piece of state land adjacent to Spur Cross would also be protected.

In exchange for its land, the State Land Trust gets comparably priced federal land and/or buildings somewhere in Arizona, with the specific property to be determined later. (See map on page 16 for details.)

The towns of Cave Creek and Carefree are in favor. Carefree's approval came with Lang's promise to help finance a road extension to the tune of $1 million. And so it's up to Scottsdale. If Scottsdale approves, McCain will introduce legislation authorizing the trade.

And Spur Cross Ranch will be saved, thanks to John McCain.
Jack Fraser, president of the McDowell Park Association, heads a coalition of environmentalist and preservation groups that has been studying the proposed land trade.

A wildlife biologist by training, Fraser has compiled every piece of correspondence, every memo, every document he can get his hands on, regarding the proposed trade. He knows the issue well and has been involved in preservation efforts in Arizona for many years.

Fraser's been amazed by how involved McCain and his Arizona chief of staff, Deb Gullett, have been in the Spur Cross issue. McCain generally reserves his breath for talk of Bosnia and tobacco and campaign finance reform--not local squabbles here at home.

Can he remember another local environmental issue, Fraser is asked, in which Senator McCain became so intimately involved?

"Yeah," comes the immediate reply. "Mount Graham."

Jack Fraser's words drip with irony. Yes, John McCain was at the heart of legislation passed in 1988 to put telescopes atop Mount Graham near Safford. Arizona environmentalists fought the move for years and still lambaste McCain for it.

The environmentalists who oppose the Spur Cross trade have dubbed the proposal Mount Graham Deux, and the two are similar, in three respects.

If the Spur Cross legislation is introduced, it will be in the waning days of Congress. Such was the case with McCain's Mount Graham legislation, which slipped through, literally in the final hours of the 100th Congress.

The Mount Graham legislation is similar, too, because, simply put, it exempted the telescope builders from environmental law.

Finally, an ugly episode arose during the Mount Graham lawmaking process in which it was alleged that John McCain threatened the job of a Forest Service employee who opposed his legislation. McCain has always denied that his call to the employee was "threatening." Again McCain is ignoring Forest Service opinions.

Mount Graham is the best-known of McCain's anti-environmental stands, but it's not the only one. Every year, the senator gets dismal ratings by the national League of Conservation Voters. Since he was first elected to Congress in 1982 (where the league gave him a notable 0 percent rating his first year), McCain has never ranked above 29 percent in the ratings, for which the league examines a handful of legislative votes that determine a lawmaker's degree of friendliness to the environment. Pro-Green senators typically rank in the 80s or above.

That 29 percent--McCain's all-time high--came just last year. The rapid rise of his environmental consciousness seems to coincide dramatically with the growth of his prospects to run for U.S. president. Any pollster will tell you: If McCain wants to be president, he needs to get Green--and fast.

John McCain and his staff have spent the past several years retooling the senator into a man Americans would like to see as their president. They've done a masterful job. Today, McCain is hailed as a maverick--an enemy of tobacco companies and a champion of campaign finance reform. He's an expert in foreign policy and the chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce committee. He even controls his temper most of the time.

The finishing touch? Paint him green. Americans want an environmentalist as their leader. According to a nationwide poll conducted in 1997 by Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin, 68 percent of Americans consider themselves "environmentalists."

Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, is defined by his environmental activism the way John McCain is defined by his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Local tree huggers--or cactus huggers, as the pejorative goes in the desert--haven't been quick to embrace John McCain. They remember Mount Graham, and they remember the contentious relationship they've had with McCain over the past 16 years.

McCain's only substantial overtures at preservation have been in the area of Grand Canyon overflights. But even on that issue, the Sierra Club finds fault with his proposals. In 1996, McCain took to the media to tout himself as nature boy in a column he wrote for the New York Times called "Nature Is Not a Liberal Plot." But that just drew giggles and eye-rolling from folks who know John McCain's record on the environment. The green keeps flaking off of John McCain. He needs a high-profile, save-the-day environmental cause he can call his own and offer up against Al Gore's chatter about global warming.

He needs a Spur Cross Ranch.

There's a fundamental flaw in John McCain's selection of the proposed Spur Cross Ranch land trade to improve his environmental record: The trade will not improve the environment--at least, not according to the environmental, preservation and recreational groups that have lined up against the proposal. As of July 31, that list includes the Arizona League of Conservation Voters, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Keep Sedona Beautiful Inc., Maricopa Audubon Society, McDowell Park Association, McDowell Sonoran Land Trust, Public Lands Foundation, Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, Wildlife Conservation Advisory Council, Grand Canyon Trust, Arizona Horseman's Association, Citizens for Public Representation and Trailhead Sports. Even a number of government bureaucrats--willing to risk incurring McCain's famed wrath--have expressed concern about the proposed land trade, including representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission and the former state land commissioner, Jean Hassell.

Why? The answer is as complicated as the proposed trade. Everyone involved agrees that Spur Cross Ranch should be preserved. The consensus ends there.

The U.S. Forest Service does not want Spur Cross Ranch added to the Tonto National Forest; foresters say they do not have the resources to properly care for the land.

A number of parties are opposed to developing the piece of the Tonto that Great American, et al., would receive in the trade.

In 1994, the City of Scottsdale specifically requested that forest land adjacent to its borders, including the parcel now up for exchange, be preserved.

Preservationists like Jack Fraser say the development of the land would endanger the wildlife--mountain lions, bobcats, snakes, lizards and more--now living there and in the land directly south. Fraser says the proposed half-mile "wildlife corridor" offered by the developers is not sufficient.

Many people in Scottsdale think that switching one tract of state trust land (parcel 4 on the map) to forest land--thus preserving it forever--is an empty gesture. Carla, administrator of the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust, insists that land does not need to be incorporated into the Tonto because no one wants to develop it.

And finally, there is the "wild card," the as-yet-undesignated federal real estate that would be traded to the state land trust and most likely sold for development. Because the land could be anywhere in Arizona, rumors are flying--from Payson to Mesa to Sedona--about where it might be. Not surprisingly, the Forest Service is opposed to that open-ended proposal. Because the estimated value of the state land adjacent to Scottsdale is so high ($150 million), estimates of the size of comparably priced tracts of federal land range from 20,000 to as many as 300,000 acres.

That is likely a popular notion to the state's developers--but perhaps, on the whole, not so attractive to the land's owners, the people of the United States of America.

And then there are the intricacies of the proposal itself. A draft of the legislation that would authorize the land trade has been floating around the northeast Valley for weeks. Included in it is a provision that would quietly usher in a brand-new mechanism for future state/federal land swaps in Arizona.

Environmentalists are frantic over that provision, pointing out that three times in the past decade, Arizonans have rejected ballot proposals asking for their wholesale approval of such trades.

The word on the street is that the provision will come out of the next draft of the legislation, but there are no guarantees it will--or that it won't be slipped back in before the bill becomes law.

Another hot spot has been concern over whether the owners of Spur Cross would be required to follow environmental laws. Early drafts of the legislation included exemptions from the need to obtain an Environmental Impact Statement on the Tonto Forest land proposed for development. The most recent EIS is from the mid-1980s. At Scottsdale's July 14 public feel-good meeting, the developers assured Scottsdale City Council that existing environmental laws would be followed. But, for now, there is no guarantee.

And McCain's Deb Gullett stepped into the fray over that argument at Scottsdale's July 14 public meeting, expressing her anger that anyone would dare to think that John McCain would champion legislation that exempted the development from environmental law.

"I'm sick at heart, and I know that he is, that a very early preliminary draft got out there," Gullett says. And perhaps she should be, since the draft legislation went out with a cover letter from her.

"Several people have made comment about the fact that the legislation would circumvent the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process. That would never happen. John McCain would never support legislation that would say that we won't apply the environmental laws of the land to this process."

But that's exactly what McCain did with Mount Graham. And until the legislation is signed into law, no one knows if it's what he'll do this time, too. A July 27 letter to a local Audubon Society official from one of the Spur Cross owners' consultants mentions the possibility of an exemption for the project from environmental impact laws--even though days before, the same consultants assured the Scottsdale City Council that no exemptions would apply.

In the case of Mount Graham, McCain ignored recommendations by the U.S. Forest Service.

This time, it is apparent McCain is again ignoring the Forest Service's recommendations. In a July 10 letter to Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana, Regional Forester Eleanor Towns expressed concern regarding almost every facet of the proposed trade. Internal Forest Service documents indicate that the department's officials have repeatedly asked McCain to reconsider his support of the legislation.

But McCain is seeking only the support of the affected municipalities.
Given the environmental community's rejection of McCain's foray into conservation, it's become obvious that the Spur Cross deal won't succeed at winning him much support from a green-leaning populace, after all. Yet McCain continues his crusade.

What may be propelling him now is anyone's guess, but a clue is on the tip of Deb Gullett's tongue at the Scottsdale meeting after Councilwoman Mary Manross asks why the Spur Cross legislation has to pass this year.

The question throws Gullett. She sputters, "Um. That is a timetable that--I cannot answer that." Then she puzzlingly adds, "That is a question that the developer's representatives need to answer."

Gullett has just said a mouthful. To understand her answer, you have to keep your eye on the presidential hopes of our state's senior senator.

As it happens, developer John Lang and Westplex, the land exchange consulting firm he's hired to facilitate the trade, are calling the shots with regard to the Spur Cross land deal--not Senator John McCain. Westplex consultants authored the draft legislation. John Lang has made it clear he wants the legislation passed, has promised that if it doesn't pass this session, he will begin building on Spur Cross Ranch.

Lang's threat may or may not hold water. He and the owners of Spur Cross must first resolve their litigation with Cave Creek. Lang says he's confident it won't be a problem, but if the town decides to balk, the land could be tied up in court for years.

McCain and Gullett surely know this. So why, as Councilwoman Manross asked, are they so gung-ho to push this legislation through? If all McCain wanted was to appear green, he would happily wait until the outstanding issues were resolved.

It's very possible he wants to push it through because he believes it's the right thing to do, and that he wants it done swiftly because that's what he feels his constituents want. Or maybe he takes John Lang's threats seriously and just doesn't want to risk losing Spur Cross Ranch to the bulldozers.

It's also possible that the reason for his haste is a different shade of green. With his run for the presidency unofficially under way, McCain could use some dough. A fat cat who digs deep for politicians, the kind of chap who owns Spur Cross Ranch, could be an appealing connection for the senator about now.

Some background. When it comes to winning the hearts and minds of politicians with greenbacks, the guy most Americans think of is McCain's famous old friend and fellow Bahamian beach bum, Charlie Keating. But Charlie Keating had a tutor. Shortly before he left Ohio in the '70s to meet his fate in Arizona, Keating worked for and studied at the feet of Carl Lindner, the majority owner of Spur Cross Ranch.

Lindner is one of the most powerful businessmen in the world. He regularly makes the Forbes 400 list, which last year estimated his wealth at $665 million. And he spends a lot of it on politicians. Common Cause magazine dubbed him a member of its "country club" of campaign donors. Lindner ranks 55th on the Mother Jones 400 list of top contributors to political parties and candidates for office during the 1995-96 campaign cycle.

Carl Lindner isn't the only one with his checkbook out. His brothers also made the MoJo 400: Robert, president of United Dairy Farmers, ranked 130th. Richard, CEO of Relco Resources, an investment and real estate company, was listed at 288.

Since 1992, the Lindner family, its companies and their employees have given the Democratic and Republican parties more than $1 million apiece. Carl Lindner is a registered Republican--Bob Dole even used one of his planes during the 1996 presidential campaign--but he has friends on both sides of the aisle. His generosity has earned Lindner a night in Bill Clinton's Lincoln Bedroom and invites to those now-infamous White House coffees.

Over the years, Lindner has taken his share of criticism for allegedly manipulating politicians. He is thought to exert a great deal of power over the candidates he supports financially.

In 1994, Ohio's attorney general looked into allegations that Ohio Governor George V. Voinovich was rewarding campaign contributors with state tax breaks and other financial gimmees. A handful of contributors was listed; the centerpiece was Lindner's Great American Life Insurance, which had received $8.6 million in state loans, tax credits and grants. Lindner and members of his family had donated $73,500 to Voinovich's campaign. In the end, the attorney general decided there was insufficient evidence to warrant a full-blown investigation.

Since 1992, Carl Lindner and his family have donated at least $3,000 to John McCain's reelection campaigns. But without a hotly contested senate race since 1986, it's unlikely McCain is looking for money for his local race. If he were to solicit donations from a big contributor like Lindner, it would be for a 2000 presidential run.

That's Carl Lindner's forte.
Lindner was mentioned in a 1996 Frontline episode titled "So You Want to Buy a President?", which focused on Lindner's lobbying efforts on behalf of one of the companies he runs, Chiquita.

In 1993, the European Union had imposed trade barriers designed to boost Caribbean banana growers by blocking sales of bananas grown by American companies, including Chiquita. Chiquita claimed the move had cost it $400 million, but U.S. officials initially balked at acting on the company's behalf because American jobs were not involved.

When the White House finally did decide to act, critics pointed to Lindner's hefty contributions to the Democratic party. Chiquita has denied any quid pro quo.

Neither McCain's nor Lindner's offices answered requests seeking comment for this story.

Whatever the fate of McCain's campaign war chest, at the moment, the fate of the proposed Spur Cross Ranch trade rests with Scottsdale's city council.

The Scottsdale City Council may vote on whether to support the land-trade proposal at a meeting on August 25. As McCain's chief of staff Gullett said, the clock is ticking.

Contact Amy Silverman at her online address: [email protected]

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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.