Saving Private Interests

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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.

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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.