U buys into space observatory amid controversy

by Sam Kean

More than 1,700 road miles separate the University campus from a previously virgin forest on Arizona’s Mount Graham, which houses two deep-space telescopes and a third to be completed in 2003.

From afar, the University’s decision to purchase 5 percent of the Mount Graham International Observatory – about 17 viewing nights per year – seemed obvious. University astronomers consider the University-of-Arizona-operated telescopes among the best in the world.

But move closer to MGIO, and problems arise – problems that have delayed the project for years.

An Apache Indian reservation, whose members regard Mount Graham as a holy site and some of whom oppose the project, lies 30 miles away.

And the endangered Mount Graham red squirrels live right in the telescopes’ backyard.

In January the University gave $5 million and the rights to its Mount Lemmon, Ariz., telescope to enter the MGIO project. University observations will most likely begin this fall.

Astronomers involved in MGIO seem convinced of the project’s merits.

“It’s one of the two best (astronomy) sites in the United States,” along with Mauna Kea in Hawaii, said University astronomy professor Robert Gehrz. Gehrz served on committees that evaluated possible telescope sites in the 1980s and said there were no serious contenders beside Mount Graham.

While Gehrz indicated his department’s excitement at the prospect of exploring planetary formation and star births with MGIO equipment, the University’s stake in it seems to have escaped notice in the rest of the state.

Longtime MGIO foe Robin Silver said he hasn’t had contact with any Minnesotans concerned about what he called a “scandalous affair.” He said MGIO concealed information and circumvented federal law.

Silver acknowledged MGIO is not the only presence on Mount Graham. It also houses private buildings and Forest Service dirt roads. But Silver said the MGIO’s location in a previously untouched forest is problematic.

Most legal actions against MGIO challenge the site for displacing red squirrels and disrupting an Apache holy site. Thus far, activists have filed 14 suits against MGIO; courts ruled in favor of MGIO 13 times. MGIO lost a fight to change construction sites in 1993, but eventually Congress fulfilled its wishes.

Federal and U.A. studies
concluded MGIO hasn’t harmed the future of the red squirrel. Powell said the presence of human food might have boosted the population.

But in past years, opponents have questioned the methodologies and loyalties of those studies. Independent biologists claim federal reports incorrectly determined squirrel numbers from nest numbers, and Silver suggested the U.A. biologists were tools of their university.

Culturally, Apache activists say MGIO desecrated one of their holy sites.

“What hurts the most is that U of A knew the significance,” said Co-Chair of Apaches for Cultural Preservation Wendsler Nosie, who was arrested and acquitted for trespassing on UA roads leading to the site. Wendsler had been praying on Mount Graham when a storm struck. UA officers detained him on his way down.

Other Apache leaders estimate thousands oppose the project, including tribal governments.

But the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Associate Director Buddy Powell said U.A. took Apache perspectives seriously before and during telescope construction.

Many medicine men accompanied Powell to the site, he said, and each told him the project could proceed as long as MGIO was not greedy about land use, because the mountain was meant for all.

As evidence of land frugality, Powell said trees are so close to the telescopes that one could fall and strike them. MGIO covers little more than two acres and requires 25 to 30 people for operation.

On scientific grounds, Silver claims snow and rain in the mountains will hamper viewing. In addition, he said astronomy has trumped biology and anthropology by dismissing red squirrel and holy-site concerns.

But Powell said cloud cover and other environmental factors render only 30 percent of nights unsuitable, a rate comparable to Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Any down time due to weather can be used to maintain and update MGIO, he added.

Given the different needs for each telescope, Powell said Mount Graham is the best overall site.

Currently, MGIO is installing underground power lines on the mountain to replace its old diesel engines. Powell said “environmental terrorists” cut the power lines last May.

Silver said while he does not condone such actions, he found them “predictable, because the University (of Arizona) alienated the average person.”

Silver and his associates exhausted legal options challenging the three original telescopes.

But because MGIO wants to expand to seven telescopes, Silver promised to return to court and fight MGIO at every step.

MGIO will be financially viable with or without four new telescopes, Powell said. But he is confident Mount Graham will one day house seven of what he says are the best telescopes in the world. Though challenges make each step difficult, it only provides MGIO with more resolve, he said.


Sam Kean encourages comments at [email protected]