University should withdraw Mount Graham support

There are times when the pursuits of knowledge, technology and free enterprise must be weighed against the ethical costs of obtaining them: Galileo fighting the Catholic Church to prove Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric galaxy, genetic cloning, the development of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge for its oil potential. This fall, the University Regents are expected to vote whether or not to participate in the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) on Mount Graham. Although the LBT takes on dimensions of these other issues, they are not necessary for the regents to weigh in deciding not to participate. Rather, the nearly 15 years of recriminations and misunderstandings in the LBT project makes the University’s participation unpalatable.

Overbroad legislation was obtained in the 1980s in order to save the project. In 1988, the German partners in the project became concerned about the difficulties of regulatory approval. Dismayed by the delays, they threatened to withdraw. Fearing this withdrawal would effectively kill the LBT, the University of Arizona petitioned Congress. In response, Congress passed the Arizona-Idaho Conservation Act (AICA). The AICA granted permission to build three telescopes on Mount Graham, subject only to a Biological Opinion prepared by the U.S. Forest Service. The project was otherwise exempted from any legal or regulatory constraints.

The legislation sparked years of litigation. Environmentalists, fearful of the impact of the telescope on an endangered species of squirrel unique to Mount Graham, attempted to block construction through the courts. Beginning in 1989, litigation on this issue continued in different lawsuits through 1997.

The Apache tribes indigenous to the region surrounding Mount Graham have registered opposition to the project on spiritual grounds. Mount Graham, referred to as Dzil Nchaa Si’An by the Apache tribes, has been a place of prayer and worship for them. The placement of a telescope at its summit, regardless of its size or continued access to the tribe, is regarded as a desecration and affront to their native beliefs.

The veracity of all these claims, and each groups’ sensitivity thereto, has been acrimoniously fought in public relations movements, as well as in the courts. The University, the University of Arizona, the University of Virginia, the Mount Graham Coalition and the Apache tribes have denigrated into acidic contests of allegations, refutations and cross-allegations. Property at the site has been damaged. Security has been hired to protect it. The University of Arizona has mandated that anyone wishing to pray at the site must obtain a permit. Contradictory studies are presented on the desirability of Mount Graham as a site. The AICA is held out as a wanton disregard of the environment, even though the project participants attempt to minimize the environmental impact. The University should not enter this politically charged morass as long as it has a choice.

The University’s Social Concerns Committee issued a position report in March 2002 just to this effect. Before concluding the University should not take part, the committee reasoned, “what is at stake here is not historical, scientific, or legal ‘reality’; rather, this is a question of how we are to be seen, of the symbolic power and violence of actions, and of the relationships we wish to set with our communities in this particular moment of history” (emphasis in original). Mount Graham is no longer a matter of who is right or wrong. It is a matter of a history of dispute. It is a matter of the University’s reputation and the University’s obligation as a land-grant institution to the sensitivities of its state’s residents.

Certainly the astronomy department should not be shackled and earth-bound. The LBT does represent a significant opportunity to better the department. However, other alternatives must exist. One of the virtues the astronomy department extols about the LBT arrangement is its ability to trade time at the LBT for access to telescopes at other locations. In its refutation of opponents’ claims, the department details that four of the five universities which withdrew from the LBT withdrew due to insufficient funds. If there is a dearth of academic funding, the department should be able to find a new partner on which to build their reputation. Although money allocated for the LBT was a private gift from Hubbard Broadcasting, in a letter addressed to LBT opponents, the donor said the University’s use of the funds is its own affair.

The University does not face the same the same conundrum as the University of Arizona. The University of Arizona is in the position of weighing all these moral and ethical arguments, considering the time and resources already spent, and deciding whether or not to continue to build the LBT. The University has a much simpler choice: whether or not to be affiliated with such a venture. Given the host of problems already raised and the ill-will already engendered, the University should decline such an invitation. Galileo took a strong stance on the location of our local star, but never such a position on where it should be seen.