Something about Oak Flat just brings out the ornery in a politician. And of course that something is money and influence. Stir in a few long-simmering grudges, and you have a rancid stew that bares little resemblance to principled democracy or good policy.
Which brings us to Arizona Sen. John McCain. There existed a time, long ago, when the good senator was actually considered somewhat of a conservationist. This was a man, after all, who took on the Grand Canyon's swaggering tourist industry by demanding a reduction in loud flights over the natural wonder. In 1987, McCain's groundbreaking National Parks Overflight Act declared that "noise associated with aircraft overflights at the Grand Canyon National Park is causing a significant adverse effect on the natural quiet and experience of the park ..."
Today, John McCain backs legislation to hobble National Park Service management of those same overflights. The senator "believes that achieving quiet within the Park doesn't require killing tourism jobs or limiting the ways in which visitors can experience the Grand Canyon, particularly when air tours are the only means by which some people can do that," his spokesman, Brian Rogers, told The Arizona Daily Sun.
In between these bipolar bookends, of course, Sen. McCain infamously helped sidestep the Endangered Species Act so the UA could build telescopes atop Mt. Graham. (More about that later.)
All of which brings us to Oak Flat, a lush woodland located about 100 miles north of Tucson, near the onetime mining town of Superior. The bucolic spot is coveted by campers, by climbers, and by the San Carlos Apaches, who consider it a sacred site. In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower declared Oak Flat a protected area, safe from the threat of mining.
Ironically, it's also long been an object of desire for two of the planet's largest mining companies, the U.K.s Rio Tinto, and Australia-based BHP-Billiton. Through their joint subsidiary, Resolution Copper Mining LLC, they hanker to turn Oak Flat into the nation's biggest copper mine. But due to staunch resistance in the U.S. House and Senate—including trenchant opposition from the Congressional Native American Caucus—a bill to trade away the Forest Service land to Resolution floundered for years.
So what do you do with widely loathed legislation that would boost one of your big donors (According to OpenSecrets.org, McCain is perennially the top Congressional recipient of Rio Tinto campaign contributions) and screw an old adversary—in this case the San Carlos Apache Tribe, with whom the senator has reportedly shared a long, bitter relationship? Well, you do what Sen. McCain did (with help from Arizona's other senator, Jeff Flake), which meant tacking the land exchange onto a mammoth defense-funding bill virtually assured of final passage in December.
But to this day, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers still contends that the land swap enjoys robust support. "This measure was approved on a bipartisan basis," he tells me, "and cleared by committee leaders from both parties, including by the Democratic Chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee (Sen. Carl Levin), Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (Sen. Mary Landrieu)."
In other words, so much bipartisan support that Sen. McCain felt the need for slapping it onto another bill, thereby dodging one more white-knuckle congressional debate.
Critics call McCain's move a new low for cynical politics. Those detractors include Roger Featherstone of the opposition group Arizona Mining Reform Coalition. He says such tactics are disappointing, if not surprising. "After all, Senators McCain and Flake did what they were paid to do."