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Germans might withdraw from Mt. Graham


Wildcat File Photo
Arizona Daily Wildcat

German scientists may back out from their involvement in the Mount Graham Observatory. The UA project has faced opposition from environmentalist and American Indian groups. Photo courtesy of Large Binocular Telescope Corp.

By Blake Smith
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
January 25, 2000
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After facing years of strong opposition from environmentalists and American Indian groups, the UA-sponsored Mount Graham Observatory may find German scientists withdrawing from the project in 2002.

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy are searching for alternate sites to conduct astronomical research because of insufficient conditions at Mount Graham, according to a German magazine cited by an environmental group.

The Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental protection group, issued a press release Jan. 13 that states German scientists believe conditions at the Mount Graham Observatory are not optimal for observation.

Peter Strittmatter, director of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, said that while the Max Planck Institute does have new directors with different priorities, the Germans' "probability of continuing (in some capacity with the project) is 99.9 percent."

Strittmatter said he was not sure how much of a role the German institute would play in the Mount Graham project after their contract expires in 2002.

According to the SCBD, an administrator with the Max Planck Institute told Germany's Stern magazine that withdrawal from the project is "very likely."

"It serves our interest to disengage from our obligation after ten years," Rolf Schwartz reportedly stated in a Stern magazine e-mail news bulletin.

"A pullout would be possible by June 2002 when our present contract runs out. We would like to cooperate in projects with more efficient telescopes," he reportedly told the magazine.

Strittmatter said Friday the only reason the Germans would withdraw from the project would be to direct their resources elsewhere.

According to the SCBD press release, German scientists are unhappy with the Mount Graham Observatory location because of continual cloud cover and high humidity.

A report issued in April 1987 compared the Mount Graham site to Mauna Kea, Hawaii, which is regarded as one of the best viewing sites in the world by scientists.

The report found that about 212 days each year were suitable for viewing the skies above Mount Graham, compared to nearly 252 days of suitable viewing on Mauna Kea.

The report also found the relative humidity at ground level averaged 73 percent on Mount Graham, and only 25 percent on Mauna Kea.

Strittmatter said Mauna Kea may be slightly better than Mount Graham for astronomical viewing, but it is too expensive for many institutes and universities to locate on the island.

Mount Graham is the "best (observatory site) in the continental U.S.," he added.

"The best place is on the moon... but that is not within our budget," he said.

The UA is building the Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham, with Ohio State University as a partner.

Patrick Osmer, astronomy department chair at Ohio State, said, "From our point of view, Mount. Graham is an excellent site for the LBT.

"We are delighted to be members of the project, and we are looking forward very much to using the telescope when it is completed," Osmer added.

Strittmatter said some environmental preservationists, specifically from the SCBD, have continually attempted to prevent the Mount Graham project from moving forward.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Arizona/Idaho Conservation Act, which stated the "Secretary of Agriculture will immediately allow construction of three telescopes (plus four more in the future) on no more than 24 acres."

Two telescopes were built on Mount Graham by 1993.

In July 1994, the LBT's building was challenged in federal court, and construction of Mount Graham's third telescope was suspended until further environmental studies were conducted.

U.S. District Judge Carl A. Muecke imposed a logging ban in the proposed building area on Mount Graham in October of 1995.

This ban prevented the UA from clearing trees from the proposed building site, which needed to be done before construction could begin.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., attached a provision to an April 1996 congressional bill that allowed telescope work to resume without court-order studies.

Muecke overturned the logging ban, finding that the ban did not apply to the observatory project because it was an academic venture.

"Indeed this court believes that (the) plaintiffs are attempting to circumvent the Ninth Circuit's decisions about the LBT and Mount Graham by inappropriately raising this issue in this lawsuit," Muecke stated in his decision.

The SCBD opposed the construction of the LBT and the other two telescopes because the construction occurred in a rare coniferous forest area, said Dr. Bob Witzeman, conservation chairperson for the Maricopa Audubon Society.

Genice Froehlich, Safford District wildlife manager of the Coronado National Forest, said the Mount Graham project is located in a pure spruce forested area, which is extremely rare for this latitude.

"This is the southern most extent of pure spruce fir (in the world)," she said.

The Mount Graham Observatory currently accounts for 8.6 acres of the 2,000 pure spruce acreage, which is "a tiny portion of the mountain," Froehlich added.

Another contention of the SCBD is that the observatory is built on San Carlos Apache Indian sacred ground.

Strittmatter said many visits were done with the San Carlos Apaches before construction on the telescopes began.

"Nobody I have met said it was sacred," he said.

Letters obtained by the Arizona Daily Wildcat indicate the tribe considers Mount Graham sacred.

"Any permanent modification of the present form of this mountain constitutes a display of profound disrespect for a cherished feature of the Apache's original homeland as well as a serious violation of Apache traditional religious beliefs," San Carlos Tribe Council secretary Barbara Maualito stated in a July 1990 letter to the U.S. Forest Service.

Buck Kitcheyan, chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, stated in an August 1990 letter, "The proposed construction of an astronomical observatory on Mt. Graham threatens to destroy Apache ancestral burial grounds, medicine plants used in sacred Apache ceremonies and other religious sites."

Strittmatter said one tribe member is working at the Mount Graham Observatory, which is an indication the San Carlos Apaches do not object to the observatory.

Witzeman said there is a high unemployment rate on the reservation, and while he believes that American Indians oppose the observatory's location, it is no surprise to see young San Carlos Apaches working there.

Strittmatter said the SCBD opposes the project because the Mount Graham Red Squirrel, which calls the mountain home, would be negatively affected by the building of the telescopes.

Studies done by the Safford Ranger District have found that Red Squirrel populations have actually increased since the telescopes were completed in 1993.

Statistics show that when the first two telescopes of the Mount Graham project were completed, the number of Red Squirrels on the mountain was estimated to be between 223 and 385 squirrels.

In 1999, the population estimates ranged from 528 to 571 squirrels.

"We have seen no recorded environmental impacts (from the building of the telescopes)," Froehlich said.

In 1992, more than 200 UA students protested outside the Steward Observatory, claiming the construction of the telescopes violated sacred sites of the San Carlos Apaches and was a danger to the Red Squirrel.

Strittmatter said he believes someone from the SCBD organized the protest.

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