U official to recommend buying time at Mt. Graham telescope

Brad Unangst

University Vice President Sandra Gardebring said Tuesday she will recommend the University proceed with plans to purchase viewing time in the controversial Mount Graham International Observatory 70 miles northeast of Tucson, Ariz.

While meeting with a representative of an Arizona Apache Indian tribe that opposes the observatory, Gardebring said the University understands the cultural significance the mountain holds to the Apache people there, but that the tribe should respect the University’s commitment to teaching and scientific research.

“The Apaches have values that need to be honored on that mountain. I just think science ought to have some values that are honored on the mountain,” Gardebring said, who has been representing the University in the matter.

Environmental groups and many American Indian tribes have criticized the MGIO project, which covers 8.6 acres on Mount Graham in southeastern Arizona, for the destruction of ecosystems on the peak and for desecrating sacred land.

Sandra Rambler, a traditional San Carlos Apache, said the tribe won’t back down until all telescopes are removed from the mountain.

“I can guarantee you there will be more picketing. There’s going to be more rioting,” Rambler said. “I can’t predict what the Apaches will do.”

Rambler said the University’s participation in the MGIO project would only further the harmful effects on the Apache’s way of life on the mountain.

“That mountain is sacred to us. That mountain is our life,” Rambler said.

The University hopes to use its influence to address issues of Apache’s access to the mountain’s spiritual spots, as well as to increase the dialogue between the Apache and the University of Arizona, Gardebring said. The University of Arizona spearheaded the Mount Graham project.

Rambler and Gardebring met Tuesday afternoon in what Gardebring said would be the final meeting with opponents before the recommendation goes to interim President Robert Bruininks.

Bruininks is expected to make a decision later this week on whether to present the project to the Board of Regents at its October meeting.

The University is one of two institutions interested in joining the project. The University of Virginia received a donation of $4 million that would be used to purchase a share of viewing time. Officials said the school is hoping to decide on participating by the end of the semester.

Several others – citing financial concerns – have opted out.

In January 2001, the University received $5 million dollars from Hubbard Broadcasting to purchase a 5 percent share in viewing time, approximately 20 nights per year, on the Large Binocular Telescope.

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

The LBT, which cost $110 million, is one of three telescopes housed on Mount Graham, part of the Pinaleño Mountain range in southeastern Arizona. The other two telescopes are operational, and the LBT is scheduled to be finished spring of 2004.

The mountain is 30 miles from the San Carlos Apache Reservation and is considered sacred by the Apache people.

Tribe members who oppose the project said the Apache hold religious ceremonies on the mountain and feel the project desecrates the site.

Environmentalists oppose the project for fear it will destroy a variety of animal species, most notably the Mount Graham red squirrel, and other ecosystems located on the mountain.

In December 2001, groups opposing the MGIO met with University officials to voice their concerns. The University’s American Indian Student Association and American Indian Student Cultural Center joined in their resistance.

A month later, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which consists of 11 Minnesota tribes, passed a unanimous resolution asking the University and all other institutions to “look elsewhere for their astronomical developments.” A few weeks later, protesters gathered for two days outside Eastcliff mansion hoping to convince then-University President Mark Yudof of the mountain’s importance to the San Carlos Apache tribe.

A University Social Concerns committee report released in March stated that while the observatory would be beneficial, the University should not join the project because of the ethical, material, political and cultural conflicts.

In May, opponents rallied outside the Gateway alumni center and sent a letter to Yudof urging University officials against joining the project.

In June, a University delegation led by Gardebring visited the observatory and met with University of Arizona officials and representatives for the San Carlos Apache tribe.

Leonard Kuhi, head of the University’s astronomy department, said having access to the LBT telescope would be a benefit to the University.

“It puts us into that top tier of first-class departments because it’s always been a handicap to us not to have guaranteed access to a very large telescope,” Kuhi said.

The MGIO has been problem-plagued for more than 20 years. Opponents have accused supporters of the telescope of dirty political dealing and providing misleading information. Opponents have also filed several lawsuits to stop the project and have been accused of vandalism to the telescope site.