American Indian groups protest U’s observatory plans

by Tom Ford

The University’s possible co-ownership of a controversial Arizona observatory has fueled a debate between American Indian groups and astronomy researchers.

After receiving a $5 million grant from Hubbard Broadcasting in January, the University agreed to purchase a 5 percent share of the Mount Graham International Observatory’s telescopes.

Final approval of the agreement is pending.

Groups opposing the MGIO have contacted and met with University officials over the past two weeks to protest the partnership. They say the MGIO desecrates areas held sacred by the Apache community.

Operated by the University of Arizona, MGIO is located approximately 30 miles from the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

“This is all of Indian country unanimously standing against the observatory,” said Guy Lopez, member of the Mount Graham Coalition, an Arizona-based group opposed to the project.

But astronomers from the University and Arizona praised the observatory’s advanced research facilities and said the concerns of American Indian groups have been addressed.

Evan Skillman, a University astronomy professor, said his department has sought an opportunity for 20 years to use a large optical telescope. The MGIO, he said, is the best project the University has encountered.

“The partnership raises our profile quite a bit, and it’s a very good project to be involved with,” he said.

Congress approved the construction of the MGIO in 1988. Since then, an optical telescope and a submillimeter telescope have been built and are fully operational. A third telescope, the Large Binocular Telescope, is being assembled and will probably begin operating in 2003.

Many Apaches have voiced opposition to the project, appealing to the University of Arizona, federal agencies and national politicians – including former President Bill Clinton – to halt its construction.

Although the San Carlos Apache Tribal Council adopted a neutral stance in 1993, the council has since passed three resolutions in opposition.

Repeatedly noting the “sacredness” of Mount Graham, a 1990 resolution said any permanent modification of the area “constitutes a display of profound disrespect for a cherished feature of the Apache’s original homeland.”

Both national and American Indian groups at the University expressed similar concerns.

Over the past few days, Lopez met with representatives from the University’s Board of Regents, the Institute of Technology and the astronomy department to bring those complaints forward.

But in those meetings, he said the University officials “admitted they knew virtually nothing” about the Apache protests.

“We found that to be outrageous that this University did not do its homework,” Lopez said.

At a press conference Monday the University’s American Indian Student Association and American Indian Student Cultural Center announced their support for the Apache community.

AISCC board member and University sophomore Cheryl Goodman said many American Indian students on campus are disappointed they were not consulted about the plan.

Roxanne Gould, director of the University’s American Indian Learning Resource Center, said the University did not consult the American Indian Advisory Committee before moving along with the contract.

But Buddy Powell, associate director of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, said MGIO officials have consulted and worked with local American Indian groups since the project began.

Powell said opponents to the project are a small but vocal group. He said the local community consensus is that the MGIO is a worthwhile project.

Powell said the telescopes have been examined by Apache council members, and said all the visitors have complimented him for heeding their concerns.

Leonard Kuhi, head of the University’s astronomy department, said he thought the concerns of the American Indians had been discussed.

“It seems to me that a mountaintop with as much space as Mount Graham has plenty of room for everybody,” Kuhi said.

The Large Binocular Telescope would have mirrors larger than the Hubble satellite and would compete with the Hubble to produce pictures of other planets and deep space with incredible resolution, Skillman said.

Roughly 12.5 percent of the funding for the LBT comes from Ohio State University. Other universities involved with the LBT include the University of Notre Dame, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and several institutions in Italy and Germany.

Many institutions have backed away from co-ownership agreements in response to concerns of damage to the environment and local tribes.

Skillman said the partnership would give the University access to ten other telescopes the University of Arizona uses.

The University’s 5 percent share equates to approximately 17 viewing nights annually. Kuhi said the nights act as units of currency, and the department could trade LBT time for nights on other telescopes.

Skillman said it would be a “disaster” if the partnership is not approved. The timing of Hubbard’s donation and the availability of MGIO time presented an opportunity that probably won’t arise again, he said.

Tom Ford welcomes comments at [email protected]