BACKPACKER Exclusive: Interview with John McCain and Barack Obama

Backcountry enthusiasts deserve a president who cares about trails. So we asked John McCain and Barack Obama ten tough questions–then polled 989 BACKPACKER readers to find out what matters to you in this election.

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The trail to the White House winds through varied–and at times hazardous–terrain. There’s health care, the economy, and energy. Not to mention war and terrorism. You can learn much about how the candidates stand on those issues from newspapers, television, and websites. But 100 years from now, the issue that may just matter most is the preservation of our parks and trails and wild places. And that won’t be discussed during any debate. So we asked the candidates about national park funding, global warming, protection for ANWR, and more–including where they go for a good hike.

What experiences have affected your views on the environment?

Obama My connection to the earth was formed during my time in Hawaii, my birthplace. I think those of us who grew up in Hawaii have a particular attachment to the land and understand how fragile it is. When you are snorkeling through the coral reefs, you can see firsthand that a slight change in temperature or increase in sediment and runoff or change in acidification could end up destroying it all and making it unavailable for your children.

McCain I have viewed the tremendous harm that global warming has done to our planet. In Greenland, you can see the glaciers have receded dramatically. You can see the impact in northern Norway. You can go to the South Pole and see incredible damage. These are the visible and disturbing manifestations of climate change, and they should compel us to action.

One-third of our readers say they’ve witnessed the effects of global warming in our country’s wilderness firsthand. How would your administration handle this issue?

McCain The environmental and economic threats posed by climate change are enormous, as are the stakes of how well we deal with the problem. I believe we should pursue a market-based cap-and-trade system to achieve appropriate limits on greenhouse gas emissions. I will ensure that such a system is employed as a means of diversifying the nation’s energy mix, which, in turn, will make us less dependent on foreign oil, and thereby place America at the forefront of developing energies and environmental protection technologies that the world will demand for many years to come.

Obama I have frequently said on the campaign trail that tackling global climate change will be a top priority of mine both domestically and internationally. I was the first candidate to present a 100-percent carbon auction within my cap-and-trade proposal to reduce emissions by the amount recommended by top scientists. I am also the only candidate to use the same message on global climate change whether it’s in front of environmental audiences or automotive CEOs in Detroit, Michigan.

According to the candidates’ environmental planks, both support a cap-and-trade program to regulate carbon emissions (Obama’s has the goal of decreasing emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels; McCain’s goes to 60 percent below). Obama would have those credits sold at auction (some of the proceeds would be invested in clean energy development); McCain would phase in auctions eventually.

How about funding national parks and protecting open spaces?

Obama National parks funding and protecting open space will fall within a larger environmental agenda that puts the interest of science and the American people above that of the special interests who have controlled the debate in Washington for far too long. Especially as we approach the centennial celebration of the national parks system, I believe it provides us with an opportunity to have an open discussion about the future of U.S. environmental laws. And I will also address the serious backlog issues we have with our national parks, and make good on the promise that President Bush has broken.

McCain I have a strong and consistent record in the Senate for fully funding our national parks. I was the lead sponsor for the National Parks Centennial Act, which would have eliminated all national parks’ annual operating deficits. I have been proud to support greater funding for our parks, but fully protecting, restoring, and enjoying our national parks will require more than just additional funding. We need to give the national park service guiding policies that properly balance park protection and public enjoyment of our nation’s natural treasures. By the National Park System’s centennial we will have a park system that showcases the best educational, environmental, and civic engagement programs in the world.

The National Parks Conservation Association reports that both candidates have made commitments toward ensuring the National Park System has the funding to meet its maintenance backlog by 2016, the centennial of the NPS. McCain is also pushing for a National Parks Centennial Fund, a program to repair the parks through a mix of public and private funding.

Currently, with few exceptions, visitors are banned from carrying loaded guns in national parks. Where do you stand?

Obama I believe in Second Amendment rights and the rights of hunters and sportsmen to bear arms and use them in a responsible way. But I am concerned about allowing loaded firearms into family-oriented spaces. We need to closely examine the rationale for any proposal before making efforts to overturn the rule.

McCain I believe the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service should remove their prohibitions against law-abiding citizens transporting and carrying firearms on lands managed by these agencies. I believe such regulatory changes would respect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding owners, while providing a consistent application of state weapons laws.

The question over oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a hot-button issue, but drilling in the Lower 48 is already having a profound impact on the outdoors. Where do you stand on new oil and gas drilling on federal land?

McCain There is much we can do to increase our own oil production in ways that protect the environment using advanced technologies, including those that use and bury carbon dioxide, to recover the oil below the wells we have already drilled, and to tap oil, natural gas, and shale economically with minimal environmental impact. I believe in the multiple-use, sustained-yield approach to public land management, while ensuring that we fully protect the character of unique and sensitive areas.

Obama I oppose new offshore drilling, and I will work to ensure that we strike an appropriate balance between environmental concerns and oil and gas drilling on federal lands–a balance that takes into account sound science, not just commercial special interests. I also believe that taxpayers should expect fair compensation for this use of federal resources.

According to The New York Times, both candidates oppose drilling in ANWR. McCain opposed new offshore drilling until June 2008 (he’s now in favor). Obama opposes offshore drilling, but has recently suggested that he would consider it and has proposed a “use it or lose it” approach to drilling permits, requiring oil companies to develop land they’ve already leased but have yet to drill on.

Mr.McCain, as a Westerner, what are your thoughts about delisting the Rocky Mountain gray wolf from federal protection?

McCain I welcome delisting the wolves where appropriate. While protection and recovery of endangered and threatened species is important, I feel there should be a reasonable and balanced approach to managing species in a manner that is conducive to the interests of private landowners and livestock growers. I believe the Fish and Wildlife Service should be doing more to engage in effective public consultation prior to and throughout the recovery process. One solution is to promote greater partnerships and boost incentives for landowners and state wildlife agencies. We must also ensure that livestock owners have the right to protect their stock as well as receive fair and equitable compensation for takings. Congress could do more to provide adequate oversight into recovery programs, and should reexamine the strengths, weaknesses, and overall effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act.

Mr. Obama, you’ve cited Teddy Roosevelt, who created five national parks, as a hero. Where would you create the next park?

Obama I support efforts to provide permanent protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Mr. Obama, your environmental agenda includes a plan to promote carbon sequestration through incentives to forest owners, ranchers, and farmers to plant more trees and grasslands. How would you accomplish that?

Obama I will increase funding for the Conservation Security Program and the Conservation Reserve Program and will create additional incentives for private landowners for sustainable agriculture to protect and restore wetlands, grasslands, forests, and other wildlife habitat. And I will support efforts of farmers to engage in no-till practices that retain carbon currently stored in the soil and aggregate carbon credits for sale through efforts like the Chicago Climate Exchange.

The CSP and CRP are federal programs that provide financial assitance to eligible farmers, ranchers, and landowners who work to conserve and “environmentally enhance” their land.

And part of your energy plan, Mr. McCain, involves developing more nuclear power plants.

McCain I strongly support greater reliance on nuclear power. I believe that if we are to be serious about addressing global warming, improving air quality, and achieving national energy security, we must also be serious about ensuring that nuclear energy is permitted to play a more significant role in our energy mix.

McCain calls for 45 new nuclear plants to be built by 2030.

Last question: Where would you take a BACKPACKER reader hiking?

Obama I remember fondly my childhood visits to Yellowstone, and I would very much like to return there for some autumn hiking.

McCain I would want to take you to Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, which I believe is among our nation’s best-hidden natural treasures.