McCain: T.R. or W?

The GOP nominee often invokes Teddy Roosevelt, but his conservation record is closer to a more recent president's

  • Barrie Maguire

Arizona Sen. John McCain often talks about how he's inspired by another Republican, a past president legendary for his conservationist ethics. 

"My political hero is and always has been Teddy Roosevelt,"the GOP presidential candidate says. "His wisdom, vision and commitment to conservation and the stewardship ethic have been a major influence on my personal and political philosophies."

And at one time, T.R.'s influence on McCain was clear. McCain -- a Western politician for a quarter of a century -- once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the late Arizona Congressman Morris Udall, a Democrat, to pass two major wilderness bills in Arizona. Later, he pushed a bill to reduce flyovers at the Grand Canyon, which Teddy Roosevelt first protected as a national monument a century ago. It was enough to give some environmentalists hope that McCain, as president, would understand the complex issues of the West and embrace a conservationist ethic.

But McCain's more recent voting record -- or lack thereof (he missed every key conservation vote in 2007) -- has tarnished his green image to the point that he resembles W. more than T.R. McCain supports reforming the Endangered Species Act to work "proactively and cooperatively with private landowners to protect habitat"while "respecting property rights."He opposes any meaningful increase in fees for grazing on public land. He supports changes to the 1872 Mining Law, but only if they don't hurt industry, and he has stood by silently as uranium mining threatens to encroach on Grand Canyon National Park. Meanwhile, he has earned a lifetime score of just 24 -- out of a possible 100 -- from the League of Conservation Voters. 

"McCain gave us hope that he might be a Teddy Roosevelt type of Republican,"says Roger Clark, air and water director for the Grand Canyon Trust, which works to protect areas in and around the park. "Since the beginning of his run for president, including in 2000, that has kind of crumbled."

When McCain first entered Congress in 1983, he fell under the spell of the great liberal conservationist "Mo"Udall, who taught McCain the value of bipartisanship.

Today, McCain says that some of his proudest achievements in Congress include working with Udall to pass the 1984 Arizona Wilderness Act, which set aside 150,000 acres near Sedona, and the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act in 1990, which protected more than 2 million acres of federal land.

McCain later sponsored and ushered through the Senate the 1987 National Parks Overflights Act, which sought to restore natural quiet to the increasingly racket-ridden Grand Canyon.

McCain has hiked the canyon on several occasions, including a rim-to-rim hike last year, and he says it holds a special place in his heart. "One of my favorite pastimes is to visit and experience the Grand Canyon,"McCain wrote in response to the League of Conservation Voters' 2006 questionnaire. "It is a special, sacred place whose timeless beauty moves me."

McCain's bill helped restore quiet in the part of the canyon that includes the most heavily used trails. The law stopped helicopters from descending to the river and limited air tours through two corridors. But many of the park's more remote trails east and west of the popular Bright Angel and Kaibab trails continue to be heavily impacted by aircraft noise from sunup to sundown. "The airplanes are thick out there,"says Jim McCarthy, chairman of the Sierra Club Plateau Group. "It's like standing next to a freeway."

McCarthy, who wrote his master's thesis on aircraft noise inside the park, says McCain deserves credit for getting the initial bill passed and for staving off a recent attempt by Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid to amend the law to increase air tours. But he adds that the senator has done little to force the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Park Service to write regulations that "substantially restore the natural quiet and experience of the Grand Canyon"as the law mandates. The National Park Service expects to issue a draft environmental impact statement next year, 22 years after the law was passed.

McCain expanded on the Grand Canyon bill with the National Parks Air Tour Management Act, which was signed into law in 2000. It allows the Park Service to participate in the management and regulation of air tour overflights within a half-mile of all national park boundaries. In gratitude, the National Parks Conservation Association bestowed its highest honor on McCain, and former Arizona Governor and Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt hailed McCain as "a great friend of the Grand Canyon."

Even these achievements, however, were tainted by McCain's increasingly hostile relationship with Arizona's conservation community -- a relationship that, at times, has revealed the senator's short emotional fuse.

The rift first appeared in the late 1980s in the wake of the University of Arizona's controversial decision to build telescopes atop Mount Graham, deep in old-growth forest that's home to an endangered red squirrel. At one point, according to a Government Accountability Office report, McCain told U.S. Forest Service Supervisor James Abbott that if he didn't exempt the university from a myriad of environmental protection laws, Abbott "would be the shortest-tenured supervisor in the history of the Forest Service."McCain then helped push through special legislation clearing the way for construction by exempting the university from key provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

Bob Witzeman of the Maricopa Audubon Society recently recounted a stormy meeting he and another environmental leader had with McCain regarding the issue in his Phoenix office in late 1989 or 1990. "We said that we had come to talk about Mount Graham and the telescopes,"Witzeman recalled in early August. "At that point, he turned red, stood up and pounded his fists on the table in front of him and began berating us and speaking in that nonstop speech of his."

After 10 minutes, the outburst ended. "We had nothing to say and left,"Witzeman said. But the incident left serious doubts in Witzeman's mind about McCain's stability. "If he had been president instead of Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S., Russia and Western Europe would have been blown off the map,"Witzeman, a Republican, said.

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