Mount Graham threatens science without humanity

O By Sraddha P. Helfrich

on Oct. 10, just two days before Columbus Day, the University Board of Regents will ponder whether to participate in one of the most culturally and socially divisive programs that has ever been put before them: whether to join a University of Arizona telescope project on Mount Graham in Arizona that desecrates a profoundly sacred Apache mountain and threatens an American ecological treasure.

Mount Graham has already been designated by the Department of Interior as eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places as an Apache traditional cultural property of religious importance. Think of it as a Mount Sinai, Mount Ararat or Mount of Olives.

Nearly every U.S. environmental and American Indian organization has urged the University not to join the project. All of Minnesota’s tribes, the University Faculty Senate, the University President’s American Indian Advisory Board, the National Council of Churches of Christ and a unanimous National Congress of American Indians resolution have implored the University to go elsewhere.

Approval of this project would make a mockery of these recommendations. The Faculty Senate report states: “On ethical, material, political and cultural grounds, we cannot afford to join the MGIO (The Mount Graham International Observatory) project.” The American Indian Board wrote to former University President Mark Yudof: “The Advisory Board has researched the Mount Graham issue, looking at the cultural, religious, social, political and scientific aspects and we firmly believe that the University should not participate in this endeavor.” The University is ignoring the thorough investigations and recommendations of its own advisory boards in order to advance the careers of an elite few within the astronomy department.

Six San Carlos Apache and White Mountain Apache Tribal Council resolutions over the past twelve years have opposed the project. Several declared the project “a display of profound disrespect for a cherished feature of our original homeland as well as a serious violation of our traditional religious beliefs.” Yet the University of Arizona continues to claim on its Web site that the Apaches are neutral on this issue. The United Nations High Commission on Human Rights cites the Mount Graham observatory as a prime example of religious intolerance by government in the United States. In the past year, we have become more aware of intolerance that grows all over the world. Let us be an example and not tolerate intolerance in our own country, as exemplified by this project.

Despite the University of Arizona unsuccessfully begging for partners to complete funding on their national controversy for the past 15 years, scores of U.S. universities have carefully reviewed, studied and rejected the project. Reasons included bad science, bad economics, bad viewing weather, very bad visibility and an egregious environmental and cultural affront that would bring shame and dishonor to any university participating. It is currently an empty observatory building waiting for parts. Just because there are telescope structures present on the mountain does not make it right or morally defensible for the University to join. The University of Arizona has not been respectful, forthright or honest with the Apaches. Its Web site asserts lies about its interactions with the Apaches and the University of Arizona illegally clear-cut several acres of forest to make room for the large binocular telescope that the University says it now backs. How is our administration justified in joining this activity?

Mount Graham has more separate biotic communities than any other isolated North American mountain. This virgin, summit forest is a Galapagos-like “sky island” cradle of evolution surrounded by a “sea” of Arizona desert. Here more than 18 plants and animals found nowhere else in the world have evolved.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that the project would destroy 10 percent of the “best” habitat of the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel and its “cradle of evolution” boreal forest. The University of Arizona says that if it is ever able to obtain funding partners to complete their project, it will build four more telescopes. This means more pain and suffering to the Apache, as well as destruction to 22 percent of that critical boreal forest. The University’s participation in this project will enable the University of Arizona to continue their train of injustices and illegal activity entwined with building the telescopes on Mount Graham.

University of Arizona lawyers have declared in court that even if the project “was going to kill every squirrel, nothing could be done about it.” Arizona spent millions of dollars to sneak a rider through Congress in 1988 without any hearings or public debate. University of Arizona lawyers argued in court that their rider maneuver exempts them from all U.S. American Indian cultural and religious protection laws as well as all U.S. environmental laws. The University should not engage in the silly process of using similar weak legal arguments to skirt around serious issues like cultural protection, honoring human rights, respecting the environment and standing up for religious freedom that is part of our country’s constitution.

New telescope options continuously become available. Dartmouth University, University of Wisconsin, University of Florida and Carnegie-Mellon University spurned Mount Graham and recently joined the huge 10.4-meter Canary Island telescope and the 9.1-meter Southern African Large Telescope (SALT). Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan likewise rejected Mount Graham for two massive 6-meter telescopes in Chile. A $3 million partnership is still open at the SALT. Stanley Hubbard, rather than insulting American Indians with this profound desecration, could spend the remaining $2 million of his gift by buying viewing time on any of a number of major telescopes worldwide.

This July, Germany’s Max Planck Radio Astronomy Institute refused to renew their Mount Graham radio telescope contract with the University of Arizona and relocated elsewhere. After 10 years of unsuccessful astronomy, they stated: “We were handicapped because the quality of the weather was not first class. We would like to cooperate in projects with more efficient telescopes.” These comments are direct proof that Mount Graham is a poor location for astronomy.

The M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence advises that eight fundamental “blunders” cause all of the violence in the world. Mount Graham telescope participants are guilty of at least four:

Knowledge without character.

Commerce without morality.

Politics without principles.

Science without humanity.

Many organizations, including the National Council of Churches and the National Congress of American Indians, have called for the telescopes to be removed. Considering that the large binocular telescope is still an empty shell without mirrors or internal housing, and is many years away from worthwhile astronomy, refraining from involvement is a viable option that would carry a much smaller price tag than damaging Apache culture and perpetuating colonial atrocities.

The University of Arizona’s persistence on pursuing this project is based on institutional arrogance rather than good science. It has ignored leading scholarship in anthropology, history and related areas of study. This is reflected in their track record of ignorance, aggression and illegal activity on Mount Graham. By joining this project, our University is about to condone the unethical actions that make this project a symbol of violations of religious freedom and promote the discretion of Apache culture. Are you proud of this?