« Return to this article

Know the West

McCain: T.R. or W?

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

 

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.

McCain's work on behalf of the Grand Canyon endeared him to conservationists. His dealings with another Arizona landmark, however, have put him on the permanent black list of many an enviro.

 Over the years, McCain has often described the San Pedro River in southern Arizona as "a national treasure"whose loss would be a "national disaster."The San Pedro hosts the second-most biologically diverse array of mammals in the world, second only to the Costa Rican cloud forests. It's also a crucial flyway for millions of migratory songbirds.

The high-desert stream is supported during the driest times of the year by groundwater that seeps into the streambed. But steady groundwater pumping by the booming community of Sierra Vista -- and the thousands of wells being drilled by local homeowners, ranchers and farmers -- are threatening to drain the river. The driving economic force in the growing area is the Army's Fort Huachuca.

During the 1990s, environmental lawsuits forced the Army to dramatically decrease groundwater pumping on the base in order to protect endangered species that depend on the San Pedro. Because the local economy is so closely tied to the fort, the federal court rulings also held it responsible for a substantial portion of off-base groundwater pumping. By 2003, concern over Fort Huachuca's impact on the San Pedro River put it at risk of being downsized during a looming round of military base closures.

McCain was faced with a choice: Preserve the river, or save the military base. He chose the base. Despite pressure from national environmental groups and editorials in Arizona's major newspapers, McCain supported legislation that exempted the fort from most of its prior responsibility for maintaining the San Pedro's water levels. The "Fort Huachuca Preservation Act"was offered by freshman Rep. Rick Renzi, an Arizona Republican whose late father, Eugene Renzi, was an executive in ManTech International -- a company with more than $500 million worth of contracts at the fort. Despite Renzi's clear conflict of interest, McCain adopted most of his language during a House-Senate Armed Services Conference Committee hearing, assuring passage of the provision.

Environmentalists were outraged. "We told Sen. McCain that his legislative exemption for Fort Huachuca would end up killing the San Pedro River,"says Robin Silver, conservation chairman for the Tucson-based environmental group Center for Biological Diversity. "He chose to ignore us, and now the river is predictably suffering."

Within weeks of passing the bill, McCain acknowledged that the San Pedro River is doomed. "It's not a matter of whether it will dry up, it's when it will dry up,"McCain told residents in southern Arizona's Cochise County in December 2003.

Conditions on the San Pedro have steadily declined since President Bush signed the bill into law five years ago. Robert Mac Nish, the retired Arizona state director of the U.S. Geological Survey, has repeatedly warned that the river will disappear unless immediate action is taken to supplement its water supplies.

McCain has responded by sponsoring a bill that authorizes the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to look for ways to bring water to southeast Arizona, to preserve the river and to supply the communities tied to Fort Huachuca. One proposal is to extend the Central Arizona Project canal from its terminus near Tucson another 90 miles to Sierra Vista -- an expensive public-works project few expect Congress to approve.

In February, Renzi stepped down as the Arizona co-chair of McCain's campaign after he was named in a 35-count federal indictment for allegedly using his position in Congress to include an associate's land next to the San Pedro River in a proposed federal land swap. His trial is set for early next year.

McCain's conservationist ethic continues to be shadowed by doubt as the presidential campaign heats up.

In May, both the Washington Post and the New York Times called into question his support of two separate federal land swaps; the exchanges, one of which has been called the largest in the state's history, benefited top McCain campaign fund-raisers. In 2007, the Arizona senator sponsored another controversial land swap (the same one that got Renzi into trouble), which would clear the way for a multinational conglomerate to mine a huge copper deposit located about 70 miles east of Phoenix. Though some conservationists support the exchange -- it would preserve some sections of the lower San Pedro River -- it has come under attack by several Indian tribes who regard the area to be mined as sacred.
This summer, McCain called for the construction of 45 nuclear power plants as part of his plans to combat global warming. At the same time, he has done nothing to slow a new uranium push in northern Arizona, an area that is still grappling with the effects of the Cold War uranium boom.

For more than eight months, McCain has refused to meet with elected officials, Indian leaders, environmentalists, water utilities and other stakeholders seeking to protect the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon from another round of uranium mining. Approximately 10,000 mining claims have been staked on federal lands adjacent to the park in the last five years in areas with some of the highest-grade uranium ore in the country.

"McCain has a historic record of caring about the Grand Canyon,"says Don Hancock, director of nuclear waste programs for the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque environmental group, "but he's been absent from this discussion about uranium development around the Grand Canyon."

Meanwhile, an abandoned uranium mine inside the park less than three miles west of the famous El Tovar Hotel continues to contaminate a creek below the South Rim. The National Park Service has declared the Orphan Mine a Superfund site. But the responsible parties, two major defense contractors, have refused to pay to clean it up.

McCain's silence on uranium mining near the park he says he loves makes quite a contrast to the bold statements of his hero. Roosevelt pleaded to Americans to "keep this great wonder of nature as it is … You cannot improve on it ... man can only mar it."

The author is a freelance writer in Tempe, Arizona.