Telescope opponents ignoring truth about worthwhile project

The Mt. Graham Large Binocular Telescope project is a multimillion dollar international science project which will allow Arizona to continue its reputation as a world leader in astronomy. This project also represents a unique opportunity for Arizona to achieve significant technological, educational and economic advancement with minimal disturbance to Mt. Graham's environment.

Construction of the LBT project has been held up by the efforts of a relatively small group of individuals who disregard study after study and continue their empty and unsubstantiated attacks. These individuals appear to adhere to the old adage that if you repeat a statement enough, the public will believe it is true. Further, opponents have irresponsibly misused of facts and statements in order to advance their arguments. However, the Arizona Daily Wildcat's Sept. 6 editorial, along with editorials from the Arizona Daily Star, Tucson Citizen, Arizona Republic, Mesa Tribune, Eastern Arizona Courier and Inside Tucson Business, as well as the widespread outpouring of community support for this project, is clear evidence that the public has caught on to their misinformation campaign. In addition, UA students voted overwhelmingly to support the Mt. Graham telescope project in a 1990 campus-wide vote.

The UA has meticulously followed the letter of the law in every step in this process. First, it has complied with all court orders and mandates, including a request to reforest parts of the mountain which had been clear-cut. Unknown to most, the UA is responsible for transplanting more than 1,500 trees during the construction of the Mt. Graham International Observatory and funding 14,000 seedlings planted on the mountain. The end result of the UA's efforts are 200,000 new seedlings. Second, Congress' intentions with respect to current legislation have been discussed in an open and honest manner with the media and the public.

One of the most fraudulent arguments is the opposition's contention that money spent on the project is being diverted from UA classrooms and departments. This is another attempt at misdirecting information and misleading the public. None of the funding for the project comes from student tuition but from grants, private contributions and European governments. The opposition knows this, but once again chooses to ignore the facts.

Completion of the observatory will have a positive impact on the university. The UA has become the world leader in astronomy and optics because of the outstanding research performed here research made possible by the facilities located in Tucson and Southern Arizona. These are facilities which are available to the world's leading astronomers, who will provide a world-class teaching forum for UA students. Because these facilities are located in Arizona, the synergy between the academic and private sector has resulted in the tremendous and well-documented growth of this high-tech industry. Is SEAC afraid to tell you that projects like the telescope improve your education, do not touch your educational dollars, and improve graduate chances for a higher paying job?

There is one point on which I agree with those who oppose the observatory. Several times in the past, they have stated that their opposition is not based on protecting the ecosystem of Mt. Graham. If they were true to their oft-stated conservation goals, the LBT's opponents would support the proposed site modification (approved by both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) because it minimizes the impact of this project on the endangered red squirrel. It is clear that the motivation of these individuals is not to protect Mt. Graham and its ecosystem, but only to continue their misguided personal quest to stop the observatory project.

A good example of the tactics being used is the contention that since the site for the LBT was slightly altered, it has not received adequate study. This argument is ludicrous. In fact, there have been more than 40 separate studies, resulting in more than 4,500 pages on Mt. Graham. These studies have been conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the UA, and point to the same indisputable conclusion the modified site is the most technically sound and least environmentally disruptive site.

It is important to note that opponents of this project have these studies, yet they continue to disseminate conclusions to the contrary. They often refer to these studies in their writings, then claim no studies have been done. As part of their commitment to the Mt. Graham environment, the LBT partners have gone to great lengths to ensure its protection. Since 1989, six full-time biologists have constantly monitored the red squirrel population, and this system will continue. Again, six years of study shows observatory construction is having no ill effects on the red squirrel. On the contrary, with two telescopes already completed, semi-annual counts have shown the squirrel population has significantly increased during the construction period.

SEAC and other groups have advocated the use of other sites, such as Mt. Hopkins. While it is true that Mt. Hopkins' astronomical qualities are similar to those at Mt. Graham, opponents conveniently forget to point out that because of the terrain and the slope of the summit, there is absolutely no room for the construction of large telescopes on the summit. Mt. Graham, with two operating telescopes and two years of astronomical data, has proven to be an excellent site resulting in outstanding astronomical data.

Because of Arizona's optimal astronomical conditions, the benefits to its economy will continue to grow with the completion of the project. Currently, there are 116 firms engaged in optics-related endeavors statewide, and more then 1,500 Arizonans employed by this industry. It is the third-fastest growing industry in Tucson. The optics and astronomy industries together inject approximately $200 million into Arizona's economy annually. The optics industry will provide Arizona with high quality, high-paying jobs which will provide UA graduates with meaningful career opportunities into the next century.

The actions taken by groups such as SEAC create a dilemma for reputable environmental organizations. Their repeated distortion of the available information on this issue threatens the reputations of true preservationists and jeopardizes the success of a project which will provide enormous benefits to Arizona with minimal effects to Mt. Graham. The time has come for these individuals to set aside their personal vendettas and join the vast majority of Arizonans in supporting this important project.

Jim Slagle is the assistant director of the Large Binocular Telescope Project.

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