Longform

Saving Private Interests

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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.

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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.