Bruininks to recommend contract with Ariz. telescope

Brad Unangst

Interim University President Robert Bruininks will recommend the University enter into a contract to use the controversial Large Binocular Telescope at Arizona’s Mount Graham International Observatory, he said in a letter sent to supporters and opponents Friday.

University officials say access to the telescope, which will be one of the world’s most powerful, would make the University’s astronomy department one of the nation’s best and enhance research and teaching at the institution.

Opponents say the telescope will only further desecrate Mount Graham, which lies 70 miles northeast of Tucson, Ariz. The San Carlos Apache American Indian tribe considers the mountain sacred. Others say the observatory will destroy ecosystems and animal species on the mountain.

In the letter to members on both sides of the argument, Bruininks said that Mount Graham was too valuable an opportunity for University researchers who are lacking facilities like the LBT.

The LBT uses two giant mirrors to see farther into space, allowing astronomers to learn more about the origins of the universe.

“In short, this project provides research and teaching opportunities that are simply not available in any other way,” Bruininks said in the letter.

He added that even if the University pulls out of the project, the LBT will go forward.

Construction of the telescope is slated for completion in spring 2004.

To balance the Apache’s cultural values and the University’s research opportunities, Bruininks recommended five additional actions, including creating a cultural advisory committee and hiring a cultural liaison to work with the Apaches on use of the mountain.

Other actions include providing educational and employment opportunities to Apache tribe members and a plan to improve K-12 literacy and public health.

Bruininks was unavailable for comment Friday, but an official statement is expected today.

The Board of Regents will address the issue at its October meeting.

Once approved, the University can use a $5 million donation from Hubbard Broadcasting to purchase a 5 percent share – nine viewing nights per year on the LBT and eight nights on other project telescopes.

Opponents spent Friday collecting student signatures on a petition asking the University to find an alternative to Mount Graham.

The petition will be presented to the Board of Regents.

The University received the Hubbard donation in January 2001. Since then, supporters and opponents have been weighing in on the project. Some opponents held protests outside Eastcliff mansion and the KSTP television building on University Avenue.

The LBT, which cost $110 million, is one of three telescopes housed on Mount Graham, part of the Pinaleno Mountain range in southeastern Arizona. The mountain is 30 miles from the San Carlos Apache reservation.