To be charitable, John McCain is running for re-election.

He's also facing an energetic challenge from the right wing of his party.

So if the senior senator from Arizona seems to be making policy pronouncements lately after looking over his right shoulder, it's understandable.

But it's disappointing, nevertheless, to see him alienate with hasty proposed legislation former allies on an issue as important as natural quiet at the Grand Canyon.

We say "important" knowing that some will question that adjective when other issues like unemployment, health care and immigration seem more weighty.

But in this part of Arizona, the Grand Canyon might outrank in importance all three of those issues combined. It is not only the top-drawing tourist attraction and thus a major financial player. But also, as one of the world's seven natural wonders, the Canyon imposes a burden of stewardship to protect its majestic natural stillness.

It is that second burden that McCain has carried off and on over the last 23 years since introducing the Grand Canyon Overflights Act of 1987. He has nudged and cajoled various federal agencies over the years to work with air tour operators and conservation groups to come up with a strategy for reducing noise that all parties can live with.

Progress, however, has been slow, dogged by interagency turf wars and heavy lobbying by all sides. To date, the National Park Service has defined natural quiet as at least half of the Grand Canyon having no audible aircraft for 75 percent or more of the daytime. But there has yet to be final agreement on flight paths and altitudes, the number of flights, hours of operation and requirements for quieter aircraft.

In other words, McCain has a right to be so frustrated that he would consider taking the rule-making out of the hands of the multi-party talks and run with them himself in a bill before Congress.

But threatening to introduce a bill is different than actually doing so, which is what McCain did last week. It came, however, less than a month before those negotiations were finally set to result in the joint release by the National Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration of proposed rules. The next step would be the start of the environmental impact statement process that would solicit public comment, then result in the adoption of final, amended rules.

Because McCain had as his cosponsor Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, he could claim his measure was bipartisan. But Reid represents Las Vegas, where the bulk of the Canyon flights originate. Reid's constituents had a clear interest in locking in the current rules under McCain's bill while McCain simply appeared to not have any patience left with the rule-making process.

But aside from Arizona U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, McCain and Reid could find no other co-sponsors. And once conservationists and the Park Service got wind of McCain's end run, they ramped up a lobbying effort that led him to withdraw the bill on Monday.

At the least, McCain's gambit has now forced the negotiators to make good on their promise to release the draft set of rules next month. Once they are out, there is still the chance that McCain will seek to modify them in Congress.

But at this point, we'd urge him to hold off until the rulemaking process has run its course. After 23 years, what's another year or so until final adoption? And who knows -- we just might find that all the parties have found some common ground after all.


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