All sides put value on environment

Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

SEditor’s note: Today’s reports conclude a two-part series on the Mount Graham telescope project, which the University voted to join in October 2002.

SAFFORD, Ariz. – The Swift Trail, which leads to the Large Binocular Telescope, takes an hour to ascend, through lower-elevation cacti and juniper bushes, ending in old-growth pine forests.

“It’s like taking a drive from the deserts of Mexico to the woods of Canada in 45 minutes,” said John Ratje, site manager of the telescope.

The University is part of the Mount Graham project, which includes the Large Binocular Telescope.

Although the large telescope is nearly completed, debate continues over whether it is right to place telescopes on peaks that have never known human impact.

The controversy is also embedded in a larger dispute between the Apache American Indian tribe members – who celebrate the mountain as a holy site – and astronomers eager to use the nearly completed telescope to decipher the universe.

Those in favor and against the telescope have leveled charges of dishonesty against one other. Motions to halt the telescope’s construction have delayed it over the last decade.

The debate has pitted astronomers against environmentalists, with the red squirrel in the middle.

Much of the environmental controversy involves the fate of the Mount Graham red squirrel, an endangered animal whose main habitat is Emerald Peak, said Randall Smith, a forestry service official for Coronado National Forest, where Mount Graham is located. There are about 250 Mount Graham red squirrels remaining.

Emerald Peak – which is more than 10,000 feet up the mountain – was selected as the site for the telescope and two others for scientific and environmental reasons, said Peter Strittmatter, the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory director.

There is little light pollution from cities that would cloud up the skies, and the climate is also dry, he said.

“It is also advantageous to be at as high an altitude as you can, getting to a point where water vapor is below you,” Strittmatter said. “If you start with a little, like in the desert, and go to an altitude where any remaining is below you, you are going to do better.”

Mount Graham was also a more attractive site because a road already existed, lessening the environmental impact of construction on the pristine location, Strittmatter said.

Smith said forestry service officials are familiar with the push to build Mount Graham telescopes and the fight to save the red squirrel.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve been through this extensively,” Smith said of the debate.

The forestry service and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted environmental impact studies in the 1980s when Mount Graham was initially explored as an observatory site.

Smith said the assessments found that astronomers should not build on Emerald Peak and nearby High Peak because of the environmental consequences to the squirrels.

Placing all three telescopes on Emerald Peak, he said, would allow astronomers to take advantage of an area that was not pure forest, and that had rocky areas that did not solely consist of the pine trees and cones that red squirrels eat.

As a result, a new road was constructed to Emerald Peak. The road to High Peak was closed and reforested to provide extra habitat for the squirrels, Smith said.

The assessments found the immediate impact on the squirrel population would be a loss of two to 10 squirrels, Smith said. The long-term assessment found a loss of 20 squirrels at most.

The eight acres the telescopes and road addition occupy are minuscule compared to the thousands of acres of forest on the mountain, Smith said.

Sky island ecology

Robert Witzeman, of the Maricopa Audubon Society, has lived in Phoenix for more than 40 years and has fought to keep telescopes off Mount Graham.

He and other environmentalists said the telescope’s placement on the mountain was laden with bad decisions and irresponsible assessments.

Emerald Peak is part of the unique “sky island” ecology of Mount Graham, he said. Thousands of years ago, the ice age ended and the surrounding area slowly turned to desert.

But the mountain peaks retained their unique climate and biology. The red squirrel survived in isolation in that specialized environment, Witzeman said.

Not having the peak and hill pine trees as part of the squirrels’ habitat will hinder their search for food, he said.

“They have the benefits of both ecosystems, but if they don’t have both, they don’t have the benefit of both cone crops,” he said.

The new road addition also affected nearby trees by drying them out, he said.

But Bruce Walsh, a University of Arizona ecology professor, said development has already reached the mountain.

Two manmade lakes sit on different slopes of Mount Graham, and many local people have summer cottages there.

“This is a heavily used recreational mountain,” he said.

The red squirrel has bigger concerns than telescopes, Walsh said. Drought, fire and tree-eating insects have threatened the squirrels more than astronomers.

But for environmentalists, putting telescopes on previously untouched parts of the mountain is problematic.

“Old growth forests like this are incredibly rare. It’s not the habitat you want fragmented for a telescope project,” said Dr. Robin Silver, conservation chairman for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“We are talking about a public treasure that’s been stolen by some universities that have been willing to trample environmental, religious and cultural laws,” said Silver, who has opposed the telescopes for 20 years.

Silver said the University of Arizona’s attempts to study and aid the preservation of the red squirrel are lip service in the name of astronomical greed.

“They have no altruistic motives when it comes to the environment of Mount Graham,” he said.

Silver, who is also a medical doctor in Phoenix, said the Mount Graham telescopes’ occupation of a small number of acres does not matter because the land they chose is critical habitat.

“What if someone wanted to mess with your testicles? You’d be bummed out. That’s a small percentage in the wrong place,” he said.

“They have a toehold on a place where they shouldn’t be. The compromise is, we will help to take down their structures,” Silver said. “They can do their astronomy elsewhere, but they can’t replace the mountaintop.”

“This is not the timber industry”

Van Talley, nearby Safford’s mayor, said he believes the environmentalists are trying to dictate how the mountain is used.

Talley said he believes astronomy can coexist with Mount Graham’s delicate nature.

“I cannot think of a use that would be any more in tune with nature,” he said. “They are not noisy. You have scientists up there, and the site has a minimal impact. This is not the timber industry.”

Ratje, who is also an amateur astronomer, said he feels proponents have tried hard to accommodate environmental concerns.

During the construction, he said, a crane was kept in one spot and parts of the building were moved as needed to minimize impact on the surrounding area.

He said the observatories are roped off and visitors must get a red squirrel permit before even entering the area.

“We are not ogres up here. We care about the environment, and we care about the universe, and our place in it,” Ratje said. “The mountain is sacred to me too.”