Com­mon Ground

Can a trail-lov­ing con­ser­va­tive use pub­lic land to bridge the par­ti­san di­vide? M. John Fay­hee joins Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Martha McSally on the Ari­zona Trail to find out.

Backpacker - - Contents - BY M. JOHN FAY­HEE

Can a trail-lov­ing Repub­li­can Con­gress­woman bridge the po­lit­i­cal di­vide?

IT DID NOT TAKE LONG for word to spread in the small, iso­lated town in New Mex­ico that I call home. Whether quaffing a Bel­gian ale in the brew­pub, or sip­ping a fair-trade latte in the java em­po­rium, or in­spect­ing or­ganic cab­bages in the food co-op, mem­bers of my dirt-wor­ship­ping so­cial cir­cle would ap­proach and ask, sus­pi­ciously, “So . . . I hear you’re go­ing hik­ing with a Repub­li­can?”

I’d brush off the bla­tant stereo­typ­ing. Be­sides, I ar­gued, these are di­vi­sive times and here was a chance find out if trails can tran­scend pol­i­tics.

At is­sue was my ac­cep­tance of an in­vi­ta­tion to spend a day on the Ari­zona Trail (AZT) with Con­gress­woman Martha McSally, whose Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal Score­card rat­ing for 2016 from the League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers was an al­most im­pos­si­bly low 3 per­cent.

McSally rep­re­sents Ari­zona’s Sec­ond Con­gres­sional Dis­trict—the south­east­ern part of the Grand Canyon State—which in­cludes such world-class rough coun­try as the Chir­ic­ahua Moun­tains, Cochise Strong­hold, Saguaro Na­tional Park, and a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the AZT, in­clud­ing its south­ern ter­mi­nus on the Mex­i­can bor­der.

Skep­ti­cal friends aside, my foray to visit McSally had per­fectly un­der­stand­able root causes.

First was my cu­rios­ity about McSally her­self. Af­ter hav­ing been told by the Air Force that, at 5’3”, she was too short to fill a cock­pit, she be­came the first Amer­i­can woman to fly a fighter plane in com­bat, pi­lot­ing an A-10 over Iraq in 1995 as part of Op­er­a­tion South­ern Watch and over Afghanistan in 2004. She then worked her way up the mil­i­tary hi­er­ar­chy un­til she be­came a squadron com­man­der and re­tired as a full-bird colonel in 2011 at age 44. She sounded like the type of paradigm-shift­ing per­son with whom I’d like to share a day on the trail.

Sec­ond, McSally had very pub­licly stated her in­ten­tion to sec­tion-hike the en­tire 800-mile AZT, an un­der­tak­ing very near and dear to my heart, as, ex­actly 20 years prior, I had be­come one of the first peo­ple to com­plete a thruhike. My in­ter­ac­tion with the foot­path over the in­ter­ven­ing two decades had been in­fre­quent and cur­sory. I wanted to see how it had evolved since its des­ig­na­tion as a Na­tional Scenic Trail in 2009.

McSally de­cided to hike the AZT at least par­tially as a way to cel­e­brate pub­lic land. “I’m hik­ing to show our dis­trict, our state, and our na­tion that these trea­sures mat­ter, that out­door recre­ation is im­por­tant,” she said in a state­ment at the out­set. “Elected of­fi­cials have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to help pro­tect our lands for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. I’m will­ing to demon­strate that I take this re­spon­si­bil­ity se­ri­ously.”

This kind of think­ing puts her al­most at to­tal odds with cur­rent Repub­li­can or­tho­doxy.

A plank in the party’s 2016 plat­form states, “It is ab­surd to think that all the [fed­eral] acreage must re­main un­der the ab­sen­tee own­er­ship or man­age­ment of of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton. Congress shall im­me­di­ately pass univer­sal leg­is­la­tion . . . re­quir­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to con­vey cer­tain fed­er­ally con­trolled pub­lic lands to states.”

But this comes at a time when the ma­jor­ity of all Amer­i­cans, re­gard­less of po­lit­i­cal party af­fil­i­a­tion, sup­port pub­lic lands, and they’re vot­ing with their feet. Pub­lic lands-based out­door recre­ation is ex­plod­ing in Ari­zona, which is home to 90 legally des­ig­nated wilder­ness ar­eas, three na­tional parks, 18 na­tional monuments, and a host of long-dis­tance trails in vary­ing stages of com­ple­tion.

And, when for­mer Utah Rep. Ja­son Chaf­fetz in­tro­duced a bill to trans­fer 3 mil­lion acres of pub­lic land to state own­er­ship in the first days of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, it prompted an im­me­di­ate out­cry, par­tic­u­larly from hunt­ing and fishing groups, loud enough to make him with­draw the bill in days.

Even Don­ald Trump, when cam­paign­ing for pres­i­dent, said he couldn’t get be­hind some­thing like that: “I don’t like the idea be­cause I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is go­ing to do,” Trump told Field and Stream mag­a­zine. “I mean, are they go­ing to sell if they get into a lit­tle bit of trou­ble? And I don’t think it’s some­thing that should be sold. We have to be great stew­ards of this land.”

The ma­jor­ity of peo­ple agree, re­gard­less of po­lit­i­cal lean­ing. In 2017, Colorado Col­lege con­ducted a sur­vey of res­i­dents of West­ern states and found that sup­port for pre­serv­ing pub­lic lands for recre­ation out­weighs sup­port for drilling and min­ing on them by a fac­tor of 3 to 1. (In Ari­zona, it’s 4 to 1.) And in a sep­a­rate poll com­mis­sioned by the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, a pro­gres­sive think tank, 75 per­cent of vot­ers in the 2016 elec­tion said that pro­tect­ing and main­tain­ing na­tional parks, pub­lic lands, and nat­u­ral places should be a “very im­por­tant” goal for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

I wanted to see if the na­tional rev­er­ence for pub­lic land is per­haps the one thing—maybe the only thing— that Amer­i­cans can agree on. In our po­lar­ized era of na­tional pol­i­tics, could pub­lic lands be a rare bit of com­mon ground? And could McSally, a proud con­ser­va­tive and de­voted trail lover, be the one to help rec­on­cile a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal party with the fact that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans love to recre­ate on pub­lic lands?


at a Mc­Don­ald’s in north­east Tuc­son on an Oc­to­ber morn­ing and drove to Gor­don Hirabayashi Camp­ground, along the Catalina High­way. The road there is lined with sheer cliffs and one of the dens­est con­cen­tra­tions of saguaro cac­tuses in the South­west as it as­cends 7,000 ver­ti­cal feet in 27 ser­pen­tine miles.

Our goal was to day­hike 13.2 miles to Red­ing­ton Pass, at the base of the Rin­con Moun­tains, which

de­fine the heart of Saguaro Na­tional Park. It’s a mod­er­ate stretch of trail north­east of Tuc­son, where McSally lives and has one of her two dis­trict of­fices.

I had ex­pressed a de­sire to McSally’s staff to do more than an or­na­men­tal, photo op-type stroll along the AZT. I made this re­quest out of con­cern that McSally’s pro­nounce­ment that she in­tended to com­plete the en­tire trail was lit­tle more than a public­ity stunt. At that point, she had hiked only one 1.7mile sec­tion (out and back, so 3.4 miles to­tal)—from the south­ern ter­mi­nus in Coron­ado Na­tional Memo­rial to Mon­tezuma Pass. That hike had been lever­aged into a bona fide me­dia event, with much in the way of TV and news­pa­per cov­er­age. The last thing I wanted was to be a part of a dog-and-pony show.

When I men­tioned that con­cern to McSally, she half-growled, half­grinned and said, “I don’t say I’m gonna do some­thing and not do it. Trust me, I’m gonna fin­ish.”

McSally told me that, given her tough sched­ule—spend­ing Mon­day through Thurs­day in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and week­ends at home in Tuc­son—and given that the AZT con­sists of 43 sec­tions cov­er­ing be­tween 9 and 35 miles each, it might take a few years, but she was de­ter­mined to see the quest through. Not, she said, be­cause she had com­mit­ted to the jour­ney in pub­lic and on the record but, rather, be­cause it was some­thing she re­ally wanted to do.

Martha—she in­sisted ev­ery­one ad­dress her thus—stated that she in­tended to in­vite mem­bers of the com­mu­nity to join her on most of the AZT sec­tions be­cause it pre­sented a per­fect op­por­tu­nity to mix with the peo­ple she rep­re­sents in a non-tra­di­tional set­ting.

But why a trail? What at­tracted an Air Force fighter pi­lot to the de­cid­edly sub­sonic world of hik­ing? Martha said her en­trance­ment with Ari­zona’s back­coun­try ac­tu­ally started in the air. “Since I was in pi­lot train­ing [at Tuc­son’s Davis-Mon­than Air Force Base], I got to view the amaz­ing va­ri­ety of land­scapes, moun­tains, canyons, di­verse ecosys­tems, and breath­tak­ing red sun­sets from the air,” she said, “as well as ex­pe­ri­ence them on the ground, first on runs, bike rides, and camp­ing, and later on hik­ing, once I got that bug.”

That led to reg­u­lar hikes and a par­tic­u­lar fond­ness for 9,456-foot Mt. Wright­son, where she’d climb to wrap­around views of Ari­zona and Mex­ico af­ter re­turn­ing from cam­paigns, be they mil­i­tary or, later, po­lit­i­cal. When she’s home in Tuc­son, she makes reg­u­lar trail runs to de­com­press from “sleep­de­prived de­ploy­ments to D.C.,” as she puts it. “I head out onto the trail with my golden re­triever when I can and, each time, my body, mind, and soul feel re­freshed.”

Sounded like a trail per­son to me.


two pro­fes­sional For­est Ser­vice wild­land fire­fight­ers, the dean of the Univer­sity of Ari­zona’s Col­lege of Ed­u­ca­tion, a su­per­in­ten­dent of a nearby school dis­trict, a wilder­ness and recre­ation man­ager for the Coron­ado Na­tional For­est— which housed this stretch of trail— a pho­tog­ra­pher, one of McSally’s staffers and her fi­ancŽ, and, per­haps most in­ter­est­ingly, the fa­ther of one of the six peo­ple who had been killed dur­ing the 2011 as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on Con­gress­woman Gabrielle Gif­fords.

It was Gif­fords’s seat, which she gave up be­cause of health is­sues re­lated to the shoot­ing, that McSally even­tu­ally won. Af­ter McSally failed to win the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion in 2012 and the seat went to a Demo­crat, she re­turned in 2014 and won the gen­eral elec­tion by 167 votes. She was re­elected in 2016 by a sub­stan­tial mar­gin. (Shortly af­ter she and I hiked to­gether, she an­nounced that she would seek the Se­nate seat Jeff Flake is leav­ing.)

Martha and I brought up the rear, as the group strung out over per­haps a quar­ter-mile. I took the op­por­tu­nity to ask about her story.

She was born in 1966, in Rhode Is­land, to a mid­dle-class fam­ily. Her fa­ther, who worked his way up from hum­ble be­gin­nings to be­come an at­tor­ney, died when she was 12. They had been very close, and his death turned young Martha an­gry and re­sent­ful.

One day, her mother, who had spent the pre­vi­ous few years try­ing to hold to­gether a sin­gle-par­ent home, sug­gested that Martha might as well join the Army.

“I had never given one sec­ond’s thought to the mil­i­tary,” Martha said. “I was ob­sti­nate. I thought, OK, if I am go­ing to join the mil­i­tary, then I’ll show her! I’ll go to one of the ser­vice academies! I ap­plied to the Air Force Academy and was ac­cepted. It was quite a sur­prise.”

Pretty much from day one, McSally had to over­come the boys’-club men­tal­ity that dom­i­nates the armed ser­vices. There have been women pi­lots for many years, but, for the most part, they have been re­stricted to fly­ing tankers and cargo planes in sit­u­a­tions of­fi­cially de­fined as “non­com­bat.” McSally butted heads with that pol­icy and pre­vailed, open­ing the doors to an en­tire new gen­er­a­tion of fe­male pi­lots.

There was more to her le­gacy. Her stint over Afghanistan came three years af­ter one of the most brazen le­gal moves in Amer­i­can mil­i­tary his­tory: While sta­tioned in the King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia, McSally, like all Amer­i­can ser­vice­women, was re­quired to wear a body-cov­er­ing abaya while off base. Not sur­pris­ingly, this chafed the hide of Amer­ica’s first com-

bat-cer­ti­fied fe­male fighter pi­lot. So, she sued De­fense Sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld. In 2002, the De­part­ment of De­fense an­nounced a “change in pol­icy” re­gard­ing the abaya re­quire­ment, claim­ing McSally’s law­suit had noth­ing to do with the de­ci­sion.

McSally’s rep­u­ta­tion among jour­nal­ists is that she rarely an­swers ques­tions di­rectly. Re­gard­ing the hot-but­ton is­sue of the day—Trump’s threat to “re­size” sev­eral of the na­tional monuments, which he ul­ti­mately did last De­cem­ber—she stressed that none of the parcels lie in her Con­gres­sional dis­trict, im­ply­ing that her opin­ion on the mat­ter was not rel­e­vant. But she said she had sent a let­ter to Sec­re­tary of the In­te­rior Ryan Zinke ask­ing that he take lo­cal in­put into ac­count as he toured many of those threat­ened monuments last year.

When I asked about her views to­ward pub­lic lands in gen­eral, she talked about mul­ti­ple use for recre­ation­ists, and how she fa­vored the con­tin­u­a­tion of the fed­eral Pay­ment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) pro­gram, which dis­trib­utes money to states and coun­ties with a high per­cent­age of un­tax­able pub­lic land within their bor­ders. In 2017, PILT de­liv­ered $34.4 mil­lion to Ari­zona, which is not ex­actly chump change. McSally’s sup­port sig­nals a will­ing­ness to go her own way: The pro­gram passed the House with just nine Repub­li­can votes when it was at­tached to the 2014 Farm Bill (be­fore McSally took of­fice).

Look­ing at the no­to­ri­ous $11.9 bil­lion in de­ferred main­te­nance at the na­tional parks, she teamed up with Rep. Seth Moul­ton, Demo­crat of Mas­sachusetts, in 2016 to in­tro­duce a bill that would for­mally aim ser­vice corps vol­un­teers at the deficit. That bill died in com­mit­tee, but she rein­tro­duced it last July; it bounced be­tween com­mit­tees over the sum­mer, then stalled again.

Be­tween her vot­ing record, leg­isla­tive ef­forts, and gen­uine pas­sion for the out­doors, it was hard to pin McSally down. The most I got in terms of a uni­fy­ing phi­los­o­phy was, “We need to make sure we pro­tect these pub­lic lands for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to en­joy, while be­ing re­spon­si­ble with tax­payer dol­lars.” There was none of Thoreau’s “in wilder­ness is the preser­va­tion of the world” spring­ing forth from her lips.


3.5 miles into our hike, is lo­cated in the kind of geo­phys­i­cal splen­dor that at­tracts vis­i­tors from around the globe. Though there are nu­mer­ous as­tound­ing moun­tain ranges in the South­west—the San­dias, the Dra­goons, and the Or­gans come to mind—none, in my opin­ion, match the mas­sive Santa Catalina Range, which fills the north­ern horizon of Tuc­son, for rugged grandeur. With crazy rock for­ma­tions, deep canyons, and views well down into Sonora, the range ranks among the most awe­some in the coun­try.

Martha started work­ing her way to­ward the front of the line, min­gling with her guests along the way, play­ing the part of trekking-pole politi­cian. I took the time to rem­i­nisce a bit about my own 1997 thruhike of the AZT.

Back then, it con­sisted of lit­tle more than a dis­ori­ent­ing hodge­podge of un­re­lated ex­ist­ing tread, spliced-to­gether for­est roads, and cross-coun­try nav­i­ga­tion at a time when GPS was still in its in­fancy. To­day, the trail is not only com­plete from end to end—it is marked, signed, guide­booked, way­pointed, and coiffed as well as any long-dis­tance trail in the West.

There was a part of me that missed the raw­ness of the AZT 20 years ago. Though I per­son­ally pre­fer soli­tude when I’m out in the woods, I am a re­luc­tant ad­her­ent to the ad­vo­cacy prin­ci­ple of out­door recre­ation: The more peo­ple we have hik­ing on our trails, the more peo­ple we likely have ad­vo­cat­ing for our pub­lic lands. I hope that’s the case for Martha, too.

We stopped for a snack at West Tank—more or less the day’s half­way point. It was there that, as hik­ers do, we started swap­ping trail sto­ries. Martha sat on the ground in a small patch of shade, eat­ing a pack-smooshed PB&J and laugh­ing at the tall tales. Like the rest of us, she was dirty, sweaty, and per­fectly at home out there among the lizards and cacti. On the trail, it’s easy to for­get about po­lit­i­cal di­vides.

From then on, Martha led the way. It wasn’t so much that peo­ple were show­ing def­er­ence to her, though I’m cer­tain there was some of that. It was a com­bi­na­tion of her level of fit­ness and the fact that she seemed like the type of per­son who con­sid­ers the tip of the spear to be her na­tive habi­tat. She is clearly a born leader, one who peo­ple seem in­stinc­tively in­clined to fol­low. Whether by in­spi­ra­tion or in­tim­i­da­tion, I could not tell.

As the tem­per­a­ture rose to­ward the up­per 80s, I started feel­ing a bit light­headed. De­spite my ev­er­in­creas­ing de­crepi­tude, I re­main a fairly strong hiker, but I do not per­form well when my cra­nium is siz­zling. Shade was sparse. The group splin­tered, with Martha, the univer­sity dean, and the school


ad­min­is­tra­tor—trail run­ners all— leav­ing the rest of us be­hind. I ended up in the mid­dle group with one of the For­est Ser­vice fire­fight­ers, who had re­cently re­turned from bat­tling the mas­sive con­fla­gra­tions in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, and Ross Zim­mer­man, the man whose son, Gabe, had been mur­dered dur­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on Gabby Gif­fords.

Zim­mer­man de­vel­oped a re­la­tion­ship with McSally af­ter the in­ci­dent. And he played a role in her de­ci­sion to start hik­ing the AZT by in­tro­duc­ing her the Ari­zona Trail As­so­ci­a­tion’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

Zim­mer­man, who leans left, ad­mires McSally and gen­uinely likes her. But he said he does not know whether he is go­ing to vote for her in the next elec­tion. Ap­par­ently, he has been up­front with her about his in­de­ci­sion.

He was of the opin­ion that McSally has the po­ten­tial to be­come a new kind of Repub­li­can, one with a con­nec­tion to the nat­u­ral world that tran­scends her party’s per­ceived ten­dency to view pub­lic lands as lit­tle more than re­source-rich com­modi­ties. That would be a big deal, maybe enough to span the ide­o­log­i­cal canyon that sits be­tween left and right and unite vot­ers on recre­ational lines in­stead of di­vid­ing them along po­lit­i­cal ones.

There is clearly work to be done. Martha has cast votes that, ac­cord­ing to the League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers, went against Mex­i­can gray wolf rein­tro­duc­tion, against the En­dan­gered Species Act, in fa­vor of drilling in the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Re­serve, and against fed­eral fund­ing for re­search into re­new­able en­ergy.

But then there’s the fact that she sued the Sec­re­tary of De­fense, dur­ing wartime, over an is­sue that even the most skep­ti­cal among us have to ad­mit had less to do with fash­ion pref­er­ence than it did with women’s rights and a sense of jus­tice and fair­ness.

“We were told that we were fight­ing against the Tal­iban at least par­tially to make it so women in Afghanistan did not have to wear Mus­lim dress,” Martha said. “And here we were, in Saudi Ara­bia, hav­ing to wear abayas. It was crazy.”

Martha said she never thought the law­suit would ben­e­fit her. Quite the con­trary. She as­sumed she would be kicked out of the Air Force the sec­ond Rums­feld got served with the court pa­pers. She wasn’t. In­stead, her suit be­came a law that passed with unan­i­mous sup­port in 2002, mak­ing the abaya ex­plic­itly op­tional. She ended up be­ing pro­moted for her in­de­pen­dent streak, not pun­ished.

We ar­rived at Red­ing­ton Pass in what mem­bers of our group fa­mil­iar with the route called “very good time.” With­out Martha set­ting the pace, it’s my guess there would have been more in the way of trail­side lol­ly­gag­ging. But the sec­ond-term Con­gress­woman had sev­eral com­mit­ments sched­uled that evening. Duty called.

Dur­ing the trip home, I thought about what I’d tell my dirt-lov­ing so­cial cir­cle. Is Martha McSally go­ing to start chan­nel­ing John Muir? Not a chance. But I still hold out hope for her. It’s based to a large ex­tent on her in­ten­tion to hike the en­tire AZT, to spend weeks and weeks rub­bing el­bows in an in­tense fash­ion with the world-class nat­u­ral beauty of her adopted state. I be­lieve pro­longed ex­po­sure to wild coun­try can change the way peo­ple per­ceive our pub­lic-lands her­itage. Change the way we per­ceive ev­ery­thing. Maybe even each other.

M. John Fay­hee was the ed­i­tor of the Moun­tain Gazette for 13 years and is the au­thor of 12 books. In ad­di­tion to the AZT, he has thru-hiked the Ap­palachian, and Colorado Trails.


The AZT snakes through saguaro coun­try like Gila River Canyons on its 800-mile tour of South­west­ern scenery.

McSally leads the way along a sec­tion of the Ari­zona Trail near Saguaro Na­tional Park.

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