Mt. Graham legal debate continues

The Associated Press

TUCSON The UA asked a federal judge yesterday to allow it to complete site clearing for future installation of the world's most powerful telescope, even though an appeals court has blocked such work.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. District Court in San Francisco denied the University of Arizona's emergency request Aug. 25 to lift an injunction blocking preconstruction work on the congressionally approved $60 million Large Binocular Telescope, which will feature at least one 8.4-meter mirror.

Construction of two smaller telescopes the $8 million Submillimeter radiotelescope and $3 million Vatican optical telescope was completed last year at the Mount Graham International Observatory near Safford.

Environmentalists claim the complex threatens an endangered subspecies of red squirrel that lives only on the mountain.

The appellate panel invited the university to ask U.S. District Court Judge Alfredo Marquez again for permission to proceed if the university is willing to reforest the site should it lose an appeal set to be heard during the first week in November.

The motion filed yesterday by the university asked Marquez to allow for tree clearing, utility installation and site grading at the 1.28-acre site.

"The continued delay in site preparation is placing the entire project at risk," the motion said. "This court should permit the requisite site preparation work... to be undertaken in the remaining weeks of this construction season."

It also argued that, contrary to environmentalists' contentions, the work will not damage the site irreparably in the event the environmentalists ultimately prevail.

"This way, we can move ahead (on the telescope construction) in the spring if we win on appeal," said Vern Lamplot, a university spokesman. "If the judge rules against us, we're no worse off."

There was no immediate word from Marquez on a hearing date for the motion.

Dr. Robin Silver, a member of the Maricopa Audubon Society opposing the telescope project, said the university's motion was expected but called it "another desperate move."

"This would be like allowing a poacher to prepare the meat they killed because they think somebody will allow them to eat it. It doesn't work that way," Silver said. "I think Judge Marquez will see through this. The university has been crying wolf for 10 years that the project will fall through."

The university wants to finish cutting about 50 spruce and fir trees, grade the site and install utilities before wintry weather that could hit the 10,470-foot mountain by late October.

The university cut about 250 trees within an acre last Dec. 7, a day after getting U.S. Forest Service approval to move the proposed site of the large telescope several hundred yards for better viewing conditions.

In May, an 18-group environmental coalition filed a suit in Washington claiming the site change ended an exemption the project had from meeting environmental safeguards required under the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

To qualify for the exemption, the environmental groups said the three telescopes had to be clustered together in the 8.6-acre area on 10,477-foot Emerald Peak.

They said the move violated terms approved by Congress in 1988, and they asked the court to order a new biological review.

On July 29, Marquez issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the university from clearing the remaining quarter-acre or so for the large telescope pending such a review.

The Mount Graham Observatory is a joint project of the UA, the Vatican's Arcetri Observatory, Ohio State University and Tucson-based Research Corp.

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