Astronomers pin hopes on Kolbe

By John McMahon

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Hoping for their best shot at continuing construction on the third Large Binocular Telescope on Mt. Graham, UA astronomers have placed faith in their local congressman.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., announced last week that he would strive for legislation redefining the original intent of the 1988 congressional decision to build three telescopes on Mt. Graham.

A coalition of 18 environmental and Native American groups successfully sued the U.S. Forest Service for allowing the University of Arizona to clear trees on a site outside of the area originally specified by Congress for telescope construction. In late July, the Forest Service was denied an en banc appeal from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Since then, the UA's Steward Observatory has been evaluating its options.

Kolbe, who was pledged written support on the issue by state representatives from six districts in Arizona, will attempt to pass a rider on an existing bill and define the Forest Service's right to designate specific telescope sites on the mountain.

Doug Nick, Kolbe's press secretary, expects that the congressman will be able to obtain a congressional exemption to the court's decision within the next few months.

"The legislation we're searching for is something germane to the issue," Nick said. "Our strategy is that we feel (the UA has) already got a site cleared. Jim's major concern is to go ahead and do this, as we originally intended."

UA astronomers are concerned that the hold-ups in construction could deter international investment in the project, which has brought in funds from as far as Italy, as well as deterring any incoming, high-caliber professors to the UA.

Astronomy senior Guy McArthur said he is an example of someone who could benefit from the high-quality instructors the project could bring.

"The detractors of this project have dangerously misinformed the public about the telescope," McArthur said. "This is not a profit excursion for the university.

"I consider myself an environmentalist," McArthur said. "And a lot of astronomy students feel the same way."

Heather McFarland, an astronomy and physics senior, is researching data collected from the Kitt Peak Observatory.

"It's ridiculous the way construction has been delayed," McFarland said. "All the university is trying to do is build it in the place that has the least negative environmental effects."

James Slagle, assistant director of the mid

LBT group at the Steward Observatory, as well as David Steele of the Strategic Issues Management Group, Inc., who was hired by the UA, stressed the need to get the telescope built as soon as possible.

"It's my job to get the telescope up and working," Slagle said. "I'm not an astronomer. I'm a businessman."

In 1988, Slagle hired six full-time biologists to study red squirrel behavior on the mountain.

"We've been concerned about all issues brought to us," Slagle said, who has led tours of Native Americans onto the mountain for several years.

According to Slagle, the site which the Forest Service designated for the UA to clear was not only better for the squirrels, but was advantageous for the telescope as well.

"It has a three to five percent better 'seeing,' as astronomers call it," Slagle said, "but there's also an environmental benefit. I don't understand what environmentalists are protesting."

Steele stressed that the UA has spent significant amounts of time and money planting and replanting trees in the area. The Forest Service, Steele explained, wanted a new road to be built, both as an example of an "environmentally safe road," and as a replacement for the old road, which was in poor condition.

"The UA put over 14,000 new seedlings and transplanted over 1,500 trees to the area of the old road," Slagle said.

Said Graham County Manager Joe Carter, "I have been watching this issue since the early 1980s. In the summer of 1981, we adopted a dark sky lighting ordinance to encourage this construction and we have been coming to the university as problems came up."

Carter explained that the telescope's construction complements Graham County's agenda to increase international tourism and the business that it brings.

The UA was granted permission to disrupt up to 8,500 trees on the mountain and they have already removed about 7,500 trees after clearing the site for the third telescope.

If forced to move back to the original site, known as RPA 3, the university would have to avoid cutting above the specified number of trees.

UA astronomers also are concerned about remaining on the cutting edge of astronomical research.

"The banner is passing from Kitt Peak to Keck Telescope (in Hawaii)," McArthur said. He said if the UA completes construction of the third LBT, it would guarantee itself a place on the forefront of astronomy and optics for years to come.

"This will be the world's largest and most powerful telescope," Slagle said. "It will see deeper into space than the Hubble (telescope) which is currently orbiting Earth."

"One of the things I'm proud of," Slagle continued, "is that our astronomy department is worldwide. As far as I know, we're the only educational institution offering a post-graduate degree in advanced optics."

Steele also stressed that southern Arizona has become a major center for optics and optic research, with more than $140 million being added to the state economy by the industry each year.

A former Native American tribal chairman, who spoke to the Wildcat on condition of anonymity, believes that many of the Native American protests against the telescope are misplaced. He explained that the telescope is not on the mountain's highest peak, from which Native American legends hold that spirits escape.

"The struggle on the mountain has somehow become a symbol for the (Native American) tradition," he said, noting that not all Native Americans oppose the construction.

The UA's attempts to obtain a congressional exemption are no surprise to opposing environmental and Native American groups, however, who have stopped the university from doing any work throughout most of the 1995 construction season.

If the university obtains an exemption from Congress, it must be done within the next two months or work will be delayed because of weather conditions until spring.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, claim that not enough testing has been done on the site designated by the Forest Service.

In a statement made to the Wildcat last week, Robin Silver of the Maricopa Audubon Society explained that more specific testing was done on the area known as RPA 3 than on the second site. Silver explained that environmentalists are only looking for the same level of due diligence on the second area.

Paul Young, the biologist performing squirrel counts for the UA, was out of the area and unavailable for comment, and Carl Russworm, the Arizona Game and Fish Department's expert on the Mt. Graham squirrel, recently left the department and could not be reached.

And, ironically, the environmental protests at Mt. Graham are being used against environmentalists as an example of an abuse of the Endangered Species Act which some political analysts claim is the next target for repeal by the new Republican congress, as they "dismantle" government.

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