Key panel recommends telescope contract

The full Board of Regents will take a final vote Friday on whether to buy a share of the project

Brad Unangst

A University Board of Regent’s subcommittee voted 3 to 2 Thursday to recommend approval to purchase a 5 percent share of the controversial Large Binocular Telescope.

The vote was the last major hurdle before the University signs on to the telescope project spearheaded by the University of Arizona. The full board will formally vote on the contract at a 9 a.m. meeting Friday and is expected to approve it.

Yesterday’s motion was passed with the condition that the University of Arizona establish a grievance process for the traditional Apache Indians, who say they were not consulted when the project was initially planned and built on Mount Graham – a site they consider sacred.

The observatory obscures a site of religious significance for the Apaches.

“The Apaches need to have their issues of access addressed in a binding and fair way,” said Regent Frank Berman, who proposed the condition as a way to achieve some middle ground.

But traditional Apaches said there is no middle ground and plan to keep fighting until the telescopes are completely removed from the mountain.

Sandra Rambler, a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe, said she plans to file an injunction as soon as Friday to halt University involvement.

“We’re ready to defend our rights,” she said.

The split vote – which was closer than expected – places final approval in the hands of the full board.

University officials said getting the University of Arizona to commit to the condition before Friday’s meeting will be difficult, but not impossible.

Provost Christine Maziar said she hopes the Apache people will view the University’s move as an act of “good faith.”

University Vice President Sandra Gardebring was attempting to contact University of Arizona officials about the grievance policy Thursday afternoon.

Finance and Operations Committee Chair Anthony Baraga, who said Wednesday he was leaning toward voting to approve the project, handed in one of the dissenting votes along with Regent Lakeesha Ransom.

Baraga said hearing firsthand from the Apache people just how important it is for the University to back out of the project changed his mind.

In a break from traditional procedure, Baraga allowed Rambler and Wendsler Nosie, another traditional Apache, to address the committee with their concerns.

Baraga also agreed to meet with tribe members following the subcommittee meeting. That marked the first time since the University expressed interest in the telescope that University regents have met with the traditional Apache, opponents said.

“I’m convinced this is wrong,” Baraga said following the vote. He added that he plans to send the same message to the full board today.

Regents Berman, H. Bryan Neel III and Jean Keffeler voted to approve.

Neel, who applauded the efforts of those opposing the telescope, said everyone – including the Apaches – will benefit from the research completed at Mount Graham.

Officials said the telescope – which uses two giant mirrors to see farther into space and will allow astronomers to learn more about the origins of the universe – will be the world’s most powerful.

“Your people are going to like it,” Neel said.

Berman said the telescope project cannot be passed up because it already has too much time and money invested and too many potential partners.

The Large Binocular Telescope, which cost $110 million, is one of three telescopes housed on Mount Graham – part of the Pinaleno Mountain range in southeastern Arizona. The mountain is 30 miles from the San Carlos Apache reservation.

University officials said the University of Virginia – which was debating whether to commit $4 million and enter into the project three weeks ago – recently purchased a share of viewing time at Mount Graham.

On Sept. 30, interim University President Robert Bruininks endorsed the project in a letter to both supporters and opponents.

To balance the Apache’s cultural values and the University’s research opportunities, Bruininks recommended five additional actions, including creating a cultural advisory committee and hiring a cultural liaison to work with the Apaches on the mountain’s use.

Other actions include providing educational and employment opportunities to Apache tribe members and a plan to improve K-12 literacy and public health within the tribe.

Nosie said what the University is offering does not make up for any of the atrocities committed against the Apache, but that Thursday’s split decision shows the regents are at least thinking about the issues.

“It doesn’t end here,” he said. “This will be a black eye for the school if they enter into it.”