U can do better than Mt. Graham

I am pleased University President Mark Yudof invoked the moral universe in regard to the University’s deliberation over leasing time on a telescope on Mount Graham in Arizona (“The moral universe within,” Mar. 11). Unfortunately, the moral universe has not been honored through much of this project’s history. I am compelled to write because I worked at the University of Arizona and spent many years exploring Mount Graham and other “sky island” mountains.

There are many reasons the University would significantly compromise its moral integrity should it decide to participate in the UA-operated telescope. The UA spent more than a million dollars lobbying for a congressional rider to circumvent major U.S. cultural, environmental and Native American religious protection laws. As an institution of higher learning, is this the type of decision-making process with which the University wants to associate itself?

The Endangered Species Act studies, allowing the project to be sited in the most destructive area of the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel’s habitat, were found under 1990 testimony by the U.S. General Accounting Office to be flawed and contrary to that law’s provisions. Is this the quality of environmental review that the University deems satisfactory for decisions affecting irreplaceable, biologically rich ecosystems?

Some claim Mount Graham has more environmental
protection with the telescope developments. However, had the UA not lobbied for an exemption from the 1984 Arizona Wilderness Act, the entire area would have been free of telescope access roads and 11-story-high structures. Why did the UA need to circumvent major laws? Because the Mount Graham telescopes would have been impossible under existing U.S. environmental and cultural protection laws.

Mount Graham’s summit forest is a unique treasure of North American biological diversity. This spruce-fir forest is equivalent to the boreal forest of Canada, except enriched by species of tropical origins and isolated by a lowland sea of desert. It possesses 18 plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Many of these species are barely known to science, let alone what effects telescope development would have on them. Given the biological significance of this mountain, hundreds of scientists are on record opposing the telescope development.

Many project supporters claim that the 8.6 acres occupied by the telescope site and access roads are insignificant. However, because openings cut in the forest allow sunlight and wind to penetrate and dry the adjacent
forest, U.S.

Fish and Wildlife studies determined that the 8.6-acre telescope project would significantly impact 47.7 acres. This is 10 percent of the endangered red squirrel’s best 472 acres of habitat. Would one want to destroy 10 percent of Minnesota’s best farmland or 10 percent of the best habitat of any critically endangered species?

The University would not be the first university to pull out of the Mount Graham project in recognition of the fundamental environmental and cultural concerns. After seven years of courtship by the University of Arizona, the University of Florida just announced it would invest in the 10.4-meter Canary Island telescope. The University of Pittsburgh abandoned it due to its bad “weather and seeing statistics.” A City of Pittsburgh resolution said Pitt’s involvement would “besmirch” the city’s reputation. Twenty-nine other universities abandoned their plans for the site because scientifically superior sites were available elsewhere.

Universities that educate tens of thousands of students every year have tremendous responsibility in probing the moral universe of the decisions they make. When it comes to the Mount Graham telescope, the University can build its reputation more successfully elsewhere.

Andy Holdsworth is a student in the Conservation Biology Graduate Program. Send comments to
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