Controversy over Mt. Graham telescope project continues

By John McMahon

Arizona Daily Wildcat

The construction of a third Large Binocular Telescope on Mt. Graham has slowly become the UA's version of the O.J. Trial, with so much emotion on all sides of the issue that most people hardly understand what's at stake anymore.

Environmentalists see the telescope's construction as the destruction of the natural environment of several endangered species. University scientists, on the other hand, view it as an attack on knowledge itself as an extension of society's frustration with government and bureaucracy. Native Americans claim that it is another example of a white society misunderstanding their culture and what it holds sacred.

The Mt. Graham project has constructed two telescopes near Graham's 10,477-foot Emerald Peak, about 70 miles northeast of Tucson. Construction of a third and final telescope, however, has been halted by a coalition of 18 environmental and native American groups, who claim that the natural and spiritual habitat of the area will be destroyed by any further construction.

Environmental groups were concerned mainly over the habitat of a subspecies of red squirrel living in the area. In 1994, the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory decided to move the project to an area the U.S. Forest Service deemed to be less populated by the squirrel. The new area, however, has not been given a full environmental examination as the original site was.

When the UA began cutting trees in the new area in December 1994, environmental groups sued the forest service for violating the Endangered Species Act by approving the site change without a full environmental impact examination.

On July 20, a 9th U.S. Circuit Court Judge declined UA's appeal for an en banc hearing with 11 of the court's 24 judges present. The court forced the UA to halt any work in the area until all environmental concerns are assessed.

Robin Silver of the Maricopa Audubon Society celebrated the Court's ruling as a big victory in a long struggle. According to Silver, the surveys done on the new area were of a different type than those performed on the original site.

"In the original area of the telescope," Silver said, "a detailed count of the middens [eaten acorns] was performed," while in other areas only a random sampling was done.

When the university then decided to change the site because of high winds near the original site, they claimed a lower midden count in the new area, but that decision was based on the random testing, rather than detailed environmental work.

Proponents of the Large Binocular Telescope claim that the random sampling tests are as accurate to a real count as possible.

"The fact of the matter is that it was the U.S. Forest Service, not the university that put together the biological study stating the second site as superior," said Matthew Smith, spokesman for the LBT group. "I can't understand exactly why they're protesting."

Smith reiterated that the squirrel population has increased in the area of the other two telescopes since their construction was completed in 1993. The installation of the telescopes, Smith said, helped bring to the forefront Tucson's optical industry, which he claimed was the third-fastest growing business sector in the area.

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