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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Candidate Profile: John McCain

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Chris Ballman examines the environmental record of Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Observers say the Arizona senator is a good friend to his home state's Grand Canyon, but most other environmental priorities are not high on his agenda.


CURWOOD: John McCain wants to be the next Republican president, and his rising popularity is bolstering his chances. Riding his Vietnam prisoner of war hero story and playing the role of party maverick, the Arizona senator is mounting a credible challenge to front-runner George W. Bush. But recent allegations of improper influence peddling are reopening a notorious chapter in John McCain's career. In the 1980s he was branded a member of the "Keating Five" for his role in the savings and loan bank scandal. We sent Living on Earth's Chris Ballman out to see just where the environment fits into Senator McCain's thinking. Here's his report.

(Milling crowd. Hydraulic hissing)

BALLMAN: As it brakes near the steps of Town Hall in New London, New Hampshire, John McCain bounds out of his campaign bus dubbed the "Straight Talk Express" and starts shaking hands.

McCAIN: Morning. How are you?

MAN: How are you?

McCAIN: Good to see you.

BALLMAN: There's a slight limp in the candidate's gait, and a breeze musses his white hair, as aides lead him into the clapboard building.

MAN: It's packed, at least 300.

BALLMAN: Come listen to John McCain at one of his campaign events and you'll hear plenty of talk of reform. Reform of government, the military, the tax code, all made possible by the biggest reform of all, campaign finance.

McCAIN: My friends, no longer are you represented in Washington unless you can give hundreds of thousands, in some cases even more than million of dollars. And that has corrupted our legislative process. I have seen the manifestations of it every day.

BALLMAN: The environment, however, isn't part of John McCain's stump speech, and he readily admits being a bit naive on some of the issue's finer points. Such as the debate over legalizing an outlawed agricultural crop that proponents say could cut soil erosion, save trees, and spur a new industry.

McCAIN: Last night I was at Keene College, and a young woman stood up and said to me, wanted to know my position on industrial hemp. Now, (audience laughter) I am the parent of young children. My wife and I are parents of young children. But I have to tell you, I did not have a clue. I believed that industrial hemp was what you make ropes out of. And so I couldn't understand why this young woman would want to know my position on ropes...

BALLMAN: John McCain does have a record on more pressing environmental concerns. When asked by reporters he's quick to read off a litany of accomplishments.

McCAIN: Placing 3.5 million acres of Arizona land into pristine wilderness status. Responsibility for the National Parks and Grand Canyon Overflights Act. The Grand Canyon Protection Act. Being called the steward of the Grand Canyon. Being called the Grand Canyon's best friend...

BALLMAN: You may notice a pattern in John McCain's environmental tapestry. It's grand, as in Grand Canyon. And his commitment to this national treasure is as clear as the view from the top of the rim.

WOMAN: (on speaker) Welcome to Desert View at the east entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. Just ahead, you can experience your first glimpse of the splendor of Grand Canyon.

ROBINSON: It's his baby. It's his back yard. It's his state. It's nice to be known as someone that, you know, wants to protect really an international icon.

WOMAN: (calling) Let me take a picture!

BALLMAN: Tom Robinson of the conservation group Grand Canyon Trust says John McCain has been instrumental in setting aside land to protect this region's fragile ecosystem. He says the senator has also helped quiet the canyon by restricting air tours. And he credits him with supporting a user fee for park improvements and promoting a plan to deal with the ecological stress of handling five million tourists a year.

ROBINSON: Although Republicans in general don't have the greatest voting record in the West, John McCain has been very helpful to us on issues that specifically relate to the Grand Canyon. And we've occasionally had to call on Senator McCain to kind of shake his fist and hold a public hearing, which he's done. He's also been helpful on a variety of other issues that deal with air quality and water issues and so forth.

(An engine revs up)

BALLMAN: But as you drive south from the canyon, down Interstate 17, and watch mountaintop pines give way to sagebrush and finally cactus on the desert floor, some Arizonans' confidence in John McCain's environmental commitment drops as steeply as the elevation.

SMITH: His record has been mixed. Where he's chosen to be a champion he's been a very strong champion. But on most issues, he has not been there.

BALLMAN: That's Rob Smith. He works for the Sierra Club in Phoenix, and he and his co-worker Don Stoiter are driving me down Cave Creek Road in an old pickup. We're on the fringe of the urban sprawl that's turning this once sleepy farm town into one of the nation's fastest-growing communities.

SMITH: Yeah, there's the Desert Foothills Scenic Drive. About all that's left of the scenery is the sign.

BALLMAN: We're headed for Spur Cross Ranch, a 2000-acre spread of cactus-studded hills that's up for sale. Conservationists call this place "a last stand" in their efforts to stop the spread of strip malls, tract housing, and trophy homes.

(A door shuts; footfalls)

BALLMAN: John McCain's footprints are here, too. He tried to broker a land swap to save Spur Cross from developers. But the deal dissolved in a mire of convoluted details. Critics charge the senator with latching onto Spur Cross to pump up his green image for the presidential race. And in the end they say he wanted to trade away too much valuable land in other parts of the state. Don Stoiter.

STOITER: He either did not pay attention to the details of the exchange and continued to promote it, or he knew of the potential for the serious loss of Forest Service lands throughout the state, and decided that it was a good thing for the state of Arizona to privatize, ultimately privatize additional land. So, that was a very scary thing for us to hear.

BALLMAN: The chilling of John McCain's relationship with many Arizonan environmentalists began a dozen years before the Spur Cross deal, about 70 miles northeast of Tucson at the top of Mt. Graham.


BALLMAN: The University of Arizona wanted to place a number of telescopes on the mountain, but the Apache people consider the site sacred. It's also home to endangered red squirrels. Normally, that would have been the end of the story, but Senator McCain helped push through an amendment that bypassed environmental and cultural protections, and the telescopes are now up and running. Critics complain the maneuver smacks of the pork barrel politics candidate McCain now decries on the campaign trail. Ron Silver of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity.

SILVER: Just like there was the "Keating Five," John McCain is one of the "Mount Graham Three." He's used his qualities to bring home the bacon for people that care little about conservation or religious freedom. Nothing stops John McCain.

McCAIN: You know, the interesting thing about Mt. Graham is our little red squirrels have increased and increased and propagated and propagated, God bless them, and they are now at a very substantial population. If I were the environmentalist, I would apologize to me.

BALLMAN: John McCain had a cold and a frog in his throat the day I asked him aboard his bus, the "Straight Talk Express," to explain his handling of Mt. Graham. He's not bothered by criticism from what he calls the far-left liberal environmental community.

McCAIN: Yeah, you know, I voted for a balanced budget. I voted against Planned Parenthood, which the environmentalists view as an anti-environmental vote. And the unfortunate part about the environmental community or some parts of it is that they've gotten so far out on the fringe that they have no credibility. And so I just don't concern myself with their report cards.

BALLMAN: The report card John McCain isn't concerned about is compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based League of Conservation Voters. Its president Deb Callahan says the senator has supported some environmental priorities, such as alternative energy and fuel efficiency. But overall...

CALLAHAN: John McCain's lifetime LCV voting score is 20 percent.

BALLMAN: Although he voted against her agenda four out of five times, Ms. Callahan is surprisingly quick to qualify her criticisms of Senator McCain. She regards him as one of the few Republicans willing to occasionally work with Democrats on pro-environmental bills. That sentiment is shared by McCain's senate partner in campaign finance reform. Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold recently persuaded his colleague to join a bipartisan effort to designate new wilderness areas.

FEINGOLD: I had had an opportunity to visit Senator McCain's place near Sedona in Arizona, and spend some time with him hiking and talking about how he felt about that natural environment there. And it was obvious to me that this is something he cares about passionately, and it was not a difficult sell. In fact, Senator McCain has a much longer history than I do of working to preserve wilderness.

BALLMAN: Conservation is a central theme when John McCain talks environment. In a converted barn next to a Christmas tree farm in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, the candidate unveiled the highlights of what he calls an economy-conscious environmental agenda. They include federal funding for open space acquisition, bonds and user fees to support national park improvements, tax credits for green technology, an annual report card on the nation's air and water, and more local control of federal lands. That final point was tailored for residents of New Hampshire's White Mountains, where people rely on both tourism and logging.

McCAIN: I think there are parts of America, including here in New Hampshire, that the people of New Hampshire would like to preserve, and they would not like to have developed and growth experienced. (Applause) Thank you. The way that is done is a fully-participatory process, in which you would be involved and all of your neighbors and all of your friends and the legislature and the county and local officials. That is the process that I support.

BALLMAN: Frankly, it's a bit hard to tell just how big a blip the environment makes on John McCain's radar screen. It's a card he can play to advantage against frontrunner George W. Bush. National environmentalists have been lambasting the Texas governor, while seeming content at least for now to give McCain a free ride. Back on the bus I check to see if the candidate has been doing his homework on legalizing that still-outlawed agricultural product.

(To McCain) Back in August, on one of your campaign stops up here, you said that someone had asked you about industrial hemp, and you were going to look into it. And now you're here a few months later, and I'm wondering if you guys have come up with a policy here.

McCAIN: I did get a chance to look at that, in fact, within about 30 seconds of the time I left the stage. Because I was informed what the use of industrial hemp is. And I do not support the use of industrial hemp for inhalation purposes. (Laughs)

BALLMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Chris Ballman with Senator John McCain on board his campaign bus the "Straight Talk Express," where the no-smoking lamp is always lit.



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