University should divest from telescope project

One year ago this Friday, the University controversially decided to invest in the Large Binocular Telescope project on Mount Graham in Arizona. The University’s Faculty Senate will consider a resolution Oct. 30 that asks the University to divest from the project, which threatens the Apache traditional spiritual homeland and ecological oasis in the middle of the desert (

If the resolution passes, it will add support to the already-large collection of scientists, indigenous and environmental groups, and universities – locally, nationally and internationally – who have spoken out against this 15-year-old astronomy project.

One outspoken critic of the ways in which his university (Harvard) dealt with this same issue was world-renowned paleontologist, the late Stephen Jay Gould. Thirteen years ago, Gould wrote an important article, “The Golden Rule – a Proper Scale for Our Environmental Crisis,” that imparted timeless lessons for how to approach our interactions with the natural world. His then-current examples of controversies remain active dilemmas today. Gould devoted a great deal of space in this essay to Mount Graham.

Citing environmental, ecological and evolutionary worthiness, and comparing Mount Graham to the Galapagos Islands, Gould wrote, “I am entirely persuaded that the Mount Graham red squirrel should be protected and the astronomical observatory built elsewhere.” The relict old-growth forest on Mount Graham is an ecological treasure hosting 18 species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Citing geological evidence, “The Pinaleno Mountains, reaching 10,720 feet at Mount Graham,” according to Gould, are “sky islands” and “are precious habitats that should not be compromised.”

Gould’s seminal essay has been republished in countless anthologies and textbooks and consistently used in college classrooms. In some instances, this essay acts as the foundation for courses in ethics, sociology and environmental studies, among others.

Soon after the publication of “The Golden Rule,” leaders at dozens of universities and institutions heeded Gould’s expert, scientific wisdom and dropped efforts to invest in the telescope project on Mount Graham. Before Minnesota joined the observatory last October, the project had not attracted new investors for years.

The question, then, becomes why the University accepted the leftovers of numerous universities and institutions that pulled away from the project because of Gould’s insight. Does the University want to take part in a project that circumvents environmental protection laws and counters the recommendations of world-class conservation biologists? Or, should it find an alternative site for its research that more appropriately reflects its commitment to ethics and diversity?

We can imagine that, given his comments regarding Mount Graham, Gould would be happy to know that on April 30, 2002, just one month before his untimely death, the U.S. government validated what Apache medicine people and anthropological experts have said all along and made Mount Graham eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as a traditional cultural property of the western Apache people.

As Gould noted, the crisis is here. The construction of telescopes is still proceeding after 15 years only because of an unprecedented exemption of all environmental and cultural laws.

The members of the Faculty Senate should learn about the longstanding controversy surrounding Mount Graham. One place to start is by reading the opinions, editorials, letters and articles on this newspaper’s Web site. They should also observe the expert advice of Gould and the international scientific community.

Faculty Senate members – indeed, this entire university – will be held in high regard by various American Indian tribes if they approve the resolution. The University should turn away from this unsound project.

Joel T. Helfrich’s column appears alternate Tuesdays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]