Telescope: U’s position dicey

The University must struggle with honoring sacred ground and gaining valuable research.

The Apache people consider Mount Graham, near Stafford, Ariz., a sacred site. The University of Arizona runs the Mount Graham International Observatory project on this site, and this University has purchased $5 million of viewing time at it. Very few situations have generated as much on-campus debate as this one.

It is irrelevant that some of us might not understand the significance the Apache place at Mount Graham as a sacred location. The reaction from opposition in the Apache community and those who sympathize with them has been stunning. The Apache have demonstrated that this issue is important to them, that Mount Graham is paramount to their religion and that they feel this observatory tramples on their spirituality. The rest of us should take these convictions at face value.

Researchers, however, contend this facility is one of, if not the premier observatory worldwide. The under-construction Large Binocular Telescope has approximately 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. Again, it is difficult for a layman to understand the benefits of this capability, but it is, without question, significantly valuable to science and society.

These two realities leave the University in a difficult position. To further complicate the situation, environmental concerns are arising from the delicate and unique ecology of Mount Graham’s summit forest, which is home to 18 plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world, including the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel.

Former University President Mark Yudof characterized the conundrum as pitting “the starry heavens above” against the “moral universe within.” Yudof’s paraphrasing of Einstein is a piercing description of the question that faced the Board of Regents in October 2002 and will continue to do so. The regents decided the benefits in understanding the heavens outweighed the ethical issues. That decision, while clearly beneficial to science, still seems intuitively problematic to this board. The University community and the regents must continue to review our participation in the Large Binocular Telescope, asking the question: What value is there in understanding the heavens above if that understanding compromises the moral universe within?