By Greg Clark
Mt. Graham telescope construction continues
Last week crews finished pouring concrete for the two major support walls of the telescope structure, said assistant project director Jim Slagle, who oversees construction on the peak.
Since early March when construction began after four months of winter snow, crews have poured almost 3,000-cubic yards of concrete and reinforced it with 150 tons of structural steel, Slagle said.
These ring-walls will provide the telescope, which will be the largest and most technologically advanced in the world when fully operational in 2003, with a stable base from which to view celestial bodies billions of light years away.
The Large Binocular Telescope is the work of astronomers at the UA's Steward Observatory in conjunction with national and international partners, but it is being built almost exclusively by contractors and workers from Arizona, Slagle said.
Last Thursday, the sight was humming with activity as eight different subcontracting companies, many from Safford, the telescope's host city - some 30 miles down the mountain - worked around each other. Plumbers laid pipe as ironworkers welded overhead, and concrete workers set up forms for a stem-wall nearby. Earth-movers emptied debris into dump trucks as flatbeds delivered I-beams and loads of brick.
Radio operators ushered vehicles up and down a single-lane dirt road to the crowded site where the telescope's structure is taking shape.
"It's a rather large telescope, but a very small place to build," Slagle said.
The construction site is cramped because it is bounded on all sides by thick forest and yellow ribbon marking an area closed to all entry: The federally protected habitat of the endangered Mount Graham Red Squirrel.
Besides being home to the squirrel, Mount Graham is also held sacred by members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. Because of these facts, telescope construction on the mountain has been hotly contested by American Indians and environmentalists since its planning stages.
In 1988, the UA received authorization from Congress to build three telescopes on 8.6 acres on Mount Graham. The action exempted the UA from following the National Environmental Policy Act, which would have prohibited construction in endangered species habitat.
Six of those 8.6 acres were used to create an access road to the site, and another acre was used to build two other telescopes on the west side of Emerald Peak, Slagle said, leaving just enough room for the LBT, but not much for construction activity.
Last June, after nearly eight years of court battles with American Indian and environmental groups, the UA was allowed to proceed with construction of the LBT.
Built on 800-cubic yards of reinforced concrete foundation keyed into solid granite, the telescope structure now consists of two cylindrical walls, on which the telescope itself and its enclosure will be mounted.
Standing inside the supporting ring-wall for the telescope pier, David Weaver of the Phoenix-based Peterson-Weaver Concrete, looked up toward the top of the 62-foot-tall concrete cylinder.
At 44-feet wide, the structure resembles a giant empty tank with openings at several levels on two sides. At the base, the interior wall is over four-and-a-half feet thick, and narrows as it ascends.
"These walls have to be accurate within one-thirty-second of an inch," Weaver said, explaining the telescope will actually mount on top of the ring-wall and rotate on it.
"The wall must be exactly circular and precisely level," Slagle said. "We don't want any binding, we don't want any interference whatsoever with the telescope pier as it rotates."
To achieve such accuracy, Weaver uses a laser surveying instrument and rented sets of concrete forms he estimates would cost at least $750,000 to purchase.
Crews will continue to work at the site until the first week of December before shutting down for the winter, Slagle said. He expects the lower portion of the building to be completed by that time.
"We will be finished with the building by 1999," Slagle said.
Despite the fact that construction is well underway, opposition to the project is still strong.
Anne Carl, a spokeswoman for the Student Environmental Action Coalition, said her group will continue opposing the UA's activity on Mount Graham "every step of the way."
"The National Historic Preservation Act requires that Native American communities be consulted and they haven't been," Carl said. "We do not respect the integrity of the process by which the university got the exemptions from obeying the law."
Furthermore, Carl said, the UA is not adequately monitoring the impact construction is having on the Red Squirrel population.
According to Carrie Templin of the U.S. Forest Service, the UA is required to monitor the Red Squirrel under provisions of the Environmental Protection Act, and is doing so.
Biologist Paul Young is supervisor of the Mount Graham Red Squirrel monitoring team. Employed by the office of the UA Vice President for Research, Young and his team conduct detailed surveys of the Red Squirrel four times per year. So far, those studies have shown no negative impact on the squirrel population.
The five biologists who comprise his team are paid by Steward Observatory, as the Environmental Protection Act requires, Young said.
Though relations between the monitoring team and the UA are close, Young said he has done everything possible to avoid a conflict of interest.
"We simply collect data about the squirrel and the decision on whether or not there is an impact is up to the Forest Service," Young said. "As biologists, we want to conduct research that will lead to better management of the endangered Red Squirrel population and its eventual recovery."
But Carl disputes the university's ability to fairly monitor the Red Squirrel. "How can they come to a conclusion that would stop their project?"
"We're not opposed to telescopes. The issue is that the UA, a publicly funded institution, is not following the law," Carl said.