Making a Mountain into a Starbase: The Long, Bitter Battle over Mount Graham

by John Dougherty

The University of Arizona needed an Indian. Any Indian would do. Just so long as the university could show its partners from Italy, Germany and the Vatican, plus astronomers from across the globe, that not all Native Americans opposed construction of telescopes.

The university needed the Indian to appear on a late September afternoon in 1993, in Coronado National Forest in southeastern Arizona, near the summit of Mount Graham, where the university had assembled hundreds of dignitaries and astronomers for a ceremony. They were dedicating the first two telescopes of the planned $200 million Mount Graham International Observatory, which eventually would feature the world's largest optical telescope.

The day had not started well. Diana Valenzuela, an Apache protester, roped herself atop a homemade tripod, delaying a telescope dedication on Mount Graham in 1993

A precisely planned series of protests had delayed the entourage's trip up the 10,720-foot peak. Protesters chained themselves to cattle guards and gates, blocking the road. A young Apache mother, theatrically hoisted atop a 35-foot timber tripod, blocked the road all by herself for more than two hours.

While the uncooperative Indians and environmentalists got arrested and dragged off, the guests of honor watched, wondering at the fanatical opposition to what seemed like a benign project tucked away in the woods. When the procession finally got through the blockades, the university called on its ace in the hole: Buck Kitcheyan, former chief of the San Carlos Apache Tribe.

Asked to dedicate a small, $3 million optical telescope already built by the university and the Vatican, Kitcheyan found himself in an odd position. A few years earlier, as leader of the San Carlos Tribe, he had signed a letter opposing the project, saying "since time immemorial, Mount Graham has been a sacred mountain to the Apache people."

But now Kitcheyan was a man in trouble, a man in need of powerful friends. A year earlier he had been convicted in tribal court of embezzlement and stripped of his tribal duties. Just a week before the dedication, a federal court had indicted him on similar charges.

Slowly, somberly, Kitcheyan walked to the podium and spoke in his native Apache. He dedicated a telescope that belonged to a church whose leaders rejected the traditions and teachings of his people, a church whose Vatican Observatory Director insisted that Mount Graham really was not sacred. Then Kitcheyan invoked the name of God. "May whoever searches here night and day the far reaches of space use it joyfully with the help of God," Kitcheyan said in a joyless voice.

Nearby, a remnant band of protesters made up of a few San Carlos Apaches, several members of the American Indian Movement and several dozen environmentalists, ranging from Audubon Society types to ragged Earth First!ers, pounded drums defiantly.

'Terrorists' versus 'whores'

It was just another day in the long and bitter battle over Mount Graham, a battle which has spanned 10 years and more than that many legal face-offs. Two small telescopes worth about $14 million have been built (the second operated by Germany's Max Planck Institute), but the battle over the third, much larger $60 million Large Binocular Telescope still rages. Each side hates the other.

Astronomer Peter Strittmatter, director of the Tucson campus' world-famous Steward Observatory, boils over with anger when the talk turns to those who oppose the project - some of whom, he reports, have mailed a dead squirrel to his home and threatened more violence. He considers them "essentially terrorists."

Phoenix environmentalist Robin Silver's take on the U of A's astronomers: They're pursuing star science and prestige at the expense of ethics, an endangered species and earthly science.

"They are whores," Silver says.

At first glance, all this acrimony seems misplaced. For starters, Mount Graham is far from pristine. Although part of it is being studied for wilderness designation and nearly 600 acres of almost untouched ancient forest remain at the summit, much of the mountain was heavily logged until the 1970s. Nearly 100 vacation homes and a Bible camp have been built on its slopes; tens of thousands of visitors escape the desert heat in its conifers each year.

Sure, the Mount Graham red squirrel, a subspecies found only on the mountain, is listed as endangered. But there's no evidence that the two existing telescopes have actually harmed the squirrels. And the telescope project, if completed, would generate tens of millions of dollars of federal research grants each year that could support programs throughout the university.

But what the university has encountered in its quest to build the largest optical telescope on Earth is a growing population in southern Arizona which is tired of having some of its favorite mountaintops occupied by astronomers. The U of A also had to deal with biologists who are increasingly vocal in their defense of the unique "sky islands" of the Southwest, and Apache Indians who are willing to fight for their remaining sacred sites.

Environmental laws - particularly the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act - gave the opposition a powerful weapon to fight the project. But what gave them the desire to fight, what embittered them deeply, were the tactics the university used to push the project.

A star empire

The University of Arizona was founded in 1885 with its mission focused entirely on the ground. As a land-grant institution mandated to help rural Arizonans prosper, it busied itself with such immediate concerns as coaxing crops out of the shimmering desert. But over the next century it diversified enormously.

Astronomers attracted by southern Arizona's clear, dry skies pioneered what has become one of the five largest astronomy and planetary science faculties in the country. About 80 faculty and researchers and 50 graduate students examine the solar system and the most distant regions of the universe from observatories on campus and on three nearby mountains - Mount Hopkins, Kitt Peak and Mount Lemmon. All of the observatories have dormitories, parking lots and helicopter pads. On campus, the Mirror Lab plant casts and polishes huge mirrors for reflective telescopes as far away as Chile.

With astronomers from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and the Smithsonian Institution joining university scientists, Tucson has become an astronomy center of global importance.

An island in the sky loses its isolation

But when it came to finding a site for the university's largest astronomy project yet, the mountains nearTucson wouldn't do. Light pollution from the rapidly expanding city interfered with visibility. So did water vapor, which diminishes at altitudes as high as Mount Graham's.

This wouldn't be just any large telescope project. Its centerpiece telescope would have the greatest light-gathering capacity in the world. "This telescope will be our best shot at finding planets around other stars," Strittmatter says. Mount Graham's altitude, plus its distance of 80 desert miles from Tucson, made it seem a perfect telescope platform. It is Arizona's steepest peak. It rises more than a mile and a half from the desert floor, which itself lies at 2,500 feet above sea level. The complication was that this remote, perfect astronomy platform was not sterile. Far from it.

Like the other two dozen or so "sky islands" that dot southern Arizona and northern Mexico, the isolated peak has evolved on its own since the Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago. It has a rich variety of habitat, from Sonoran Desert scrub at its base to an alpine spruce-fir forest near the summit - more life zones and vegetative communities than any other isolated mountain in North America. Nine trout streams tumble down its flanks. There are 18 varieties of plants, insects and animals found nowhere else.

The celebrity is the Mount Graham red squirrel. Once thought to be extinct, the squirrel re-emerged in the early 1970s, when a small population was discovered near the summit. Year to year, the population varies from 100 to 350, depending largely on the crop of conifer cones. Unfortunately for the university, the highest concentrations of squirrels were found in the spruce-fir forest at the top of the mountain - the very place it was eyeing for its telescope complex.

Openings in the canopy - such as those caused by clearing trees to build telescopes - allow more heat to reach the forest floor, drying out cones stored in squirrel middens. Clearings also make the squirrel more vulnerable to its predators, including goshawks and Mexican spotted owls, which can spot their prey better along the edges of clearings than in unbroken forest.

Considering the development that has already occurred on Mount Graham, clearing a few more acres for telescopes may seem innocuous enough. But even though such development probably wouldn’t make the squirrel disappear, it will shave away the population’s limited habitat, says biologist Peter Warshall, who headed the university’s research on the red squirrel in the mid-1980s. "What we’re talking about is increased jeopardy, not the final blow. But when you’ve got minimum viable habitat, you don’t want to reduce it any more."

Take the bypass through Congress

The plight of the red squirrel hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Arizona Department of Fish and Game has considered the squirrel threatened since 1976; in 1987 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that "because of the squirrel’s low population levels, no reduced protection of important habitats could be supported biologically." It was declared endangered that year.

That meant the Fish and Wildlife Service had to evaluate actions on federal land that could impact the squirrel. Most federal biologists were opposed to any development, including telescopes, in the squirrel’s primary habitat.

The university didn’t sit still. With a $470 million annual budget, 12,000 employees and 32,000 students, it had power to wield. When federal biologists balked at its original proposal to build seven telescopes on Mount Graham, pressure was brought to bear on regional Fish and Wildlife Service officials. The agency came up with a plan to allow three telescopes to be built on an 8.6-acre site on Mount Graham’s Emerald Peak. If the squirrel and the telescopes co-existed successfully, the university could request permission to build four more telescopes.

But the university had notched only a partial victory. It had to lessen the impact of development with some mitigation, including closing some roads high on the mountain. Most of all, Fish and Wildlife would still require years of environmental studies to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The university wasn’t satisfied. Claiming that delays would scare off potential partners from investing in the project, the university hired a powerful Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, Patton, Boggs and Blow, to help develop a loophole.

The loophole took shape as an ultimate special-interest law, exempting the university from NEPA and ESA as long as a mitigation plan outlined by the Fish and Wildlife Service was carried out. The plan eliminated most public input. Most frustrating to the opposition, it removed the NEPA requirement that Mount Graham’s ecological and astronomical values be compared to other mountains in North America that might be more appropriate for the telescopes.

The university could line up allies in Arizona’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Dennis DeConcini, Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jim Kolbe. Even a hesitant Rep. Morris Udall, then chairman of the House Interior Committee, was brought on board after then-University President Henry Koffler visited his D.C. office in October 1988.

With the OK from Udall, DeConcini attached the university’s tightly focused provision to an omnibus land exchange bill. No hearings were held.

"This has been an unusually difficult issue for me," Udall said on the House floor. "To short circuit the process Congress has established by law ... is something I do not regard warmly."

The bill passed Congress in October 1988.

How much for a sacred mountain?

Big-budget telescopes, squirrel studies and Congress aside, Mount Graham has another identity. The peak has played a major role in the traditions and religion of the Apache.

"The Apache believe that Mount Graham is essential for maintaining their traditional way of life," said Keith H. Basso, a University of New Mexico anthropologist. "The telescopes desecrate Mount Graham because they violate and impugn the mountain’s "life" and all associated forms of life that have existed for centuries on the mountain."

The mountain had been included in the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s original reservation in 1871, but was withdrawn two years later at the request of Mormon settlers moving into the area. Yet the mountain continued to be central to traditional Apache culture.

"It’s been carried on for generations and generations," says Ola Cassadore Davis, an Apache woman who grew up in a family that worshipped quietly on the peak. "Our ways of prayer were never open to advertising. We don’t tell everyone what we’re doing. We just go."

It took a while for the Apaches to react to the plan to build scopes on the peak. Tribal officials said they received only one postcard from the U.S. Forest Service describing the project. By the early 1990s, though, the tribal council passed no less than four resolutions opposing the observatory.

The Apache Survival Coalition, which Cassadore Davis founded, has been more aggressive. It filed a federal lawsuit against the Forest Service in 1991, seeking to block construction of the scopes on the grounds that the project violated protections for Native American freedom of religion.

The university had to deal with the Apaches when their opposition began to attract worldwide attention. The university developed a secret plan to buy the Apaches off. The plan, authored by the San Francisco-based management consulting firm, Booz, Allen and Hamilton, suggested creating "a positive atmosphere of cooperation." The university could contribute "very positively to the Indians’ needs’ by providing language education, high-school level education, livestock management assistance, and possibly a cultural museum.

The university paid $37,000 to the consultants, who said that creating such goodwill among the Indians would implement a divide-and-conquer strategy. "Even if there is still a small group of protesters remaining, their concerns will likely be isolated outliers," the plan said.

But it cautioned: "This must be done in the context of a renewed university commitment and sensitivity to Indian needs, not as a payment to be allowed to stay on Mount Graham." The plan, delivered to university president Manuel Pacheco in October, 1991, concluded on an ominous note: "The only way to guarantee this issue does not develop into a major conflict between the Indian tribes and the U of A is to abandon the Mount Graham site."

Pacheco kept the plan secret from the most vocal opponents of the scopes. He also kept it from the more skeptical members of the Arizona Board of Regents, which controls spending at the state’s three major universities. It took a year-long legal challenge by environmentalist Silver to force the university to reveal the details. By then, the regents had already voted to proceed with construction of the scopes.

One regent later called the university’s tactics "unconscionable" and "unethical." Another said the censorship was "ludicrous’ and "a mistake."

Pacheco did implement some of Booz, Allen and Hamilton’s recommendations to develop a better relationship with the tribe. But he also ordered U of A to become the first university in the country to oppose Native Americans on a religious freedom issue in court. The university intervened on the side of the Forest Service in the lawsuit brought by the Apache Coalition. The university and the Forest Service won the suit earlier this year in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A second front opened by the university steered money, at least $90,000 over two years, to the San Carlos Apache Tribe through its Office of Indian Programs, university records show.

In July 1993, the Apache Tribal Council rescinded the four previous council resolutions opposing the telescope project. Guy Anthony Lopez, an Indian leader at the Tucson campus, says the money brought with it an atmosphere of fear among council members: "The U of A brought in all this funding, but also ... created an impression on the council they had to go that way or they would lose their federal funds."

The council apparently recovered from that fear last month, reiterating the sacred nature of Mount Graham and formally opposing the project.

Not knowing which way the wind blows

The university also needed to keep a scientific secret.

While exempting the university from the nation’s centerpiece environmental laws, Congress had mandated the university follow the Fish and Wildlife Service mitigation plan. The most important aspect was that the first three scopes had to be clustered on no more than 8.6 acres, accessed by a new road cut from an existing Forest Service road to minimize damage to squirrel habitat.

But the university had made a big mistake. Its astronomers had miscalculated the effect wind turbulence would have on the observatory’s most important equipment, the $60 million Large Binocular Telescope, which would contain the two largest pieces of glass of any telescope in the world. To achieve acceptable viewing, it had to be housed in a 240-foot-tall building, which the university couldn’t afford, according to a draft report from the astronomy department.

Nevertheless, the university proceeded with the construction of the two smaller scopes in the 8.6-acre cluster - neither of them would be affected by the winds that would devastate the Large Binocular Telescope, Congress’ General Accounting Office found. The university’s intent was to "establish a beachhead on the mountain," said Bob Witzeman, a long-time opponent of the project and conservation chairman of the Phoenix-based Maricopa Audubon Society.

In 1992, two years after the university learned of the turbulence glitch, the report was leaked to Witzeman. The university then announced the problem and began publicly seeking a way to relocate the biggest scope.

Moving out of bounds

From one viewpoint, the university deserves a little sympathy.

All along, it could cite a lofty justification - more telescopes would mean more opportunity for learning about the universe, advancing the frontier of knowledge. The public, according to the university’s own polls, supported the project. But student protestors occasionally made the campus reminiscent of 1960s war protests, with minor monkeywrenching at the university’s existing observatories, a sit-in/hunger strike atop a campus tower and local police looking unflatteringly militaristic as they waded into blocks of chanting demonstrators.

While protestors and police went eyeball-to-eyeball, the red squirrels weathered the installation of the first scopes, infusing university administrators with confidence. "To cast it in the context of an endangered species is intellectually dishonest," said the university’s vice president for research, Michael Cusanovich. "It’s a convenient legal tactic in our system, but it’s not the issue."

Even the usually quiet and apolitical Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology was split. Department head Conrad Istock was a vocal supporter of the project, while a petition signed by many of his graduate students and faculty said, "By scorning the few laws that do exist to protect our environment, the administration has sent a message to the world that institutional prestige and economics are more important."

As the petition pointed out, it was the university’s brashness that continued to provoke the opposition. The university had cooperated with several biological studies of the situation, but it avoided them whenever it could. It continued to act as if it needed little or no justification to build scopes and had little need to follow any rules.

After more studying, wrangling and looking for an alternative site for the big scope, it opted for East Emerald Peak, about 1,500 feet east of the original site, and outside the congressionally designated 8.6-acre cluster. East Emerald Peak not only provided a better view of the skies, but the university’s squirrel monitoring team reported it had fewer squirrels nearby. The university concluded that both biological and astronomical data supported the move, but in the contentious debate surrounding the project, opinions on the university’s primary motive for any action were polarized. University supporters emphasized the benefits to the squirrel. Opponents questioned the soundness of the science behind the university’s squirrel numbers.

Not surprisingly, the Fish and Wildlife Service said that shifting the location of the big telescope would reactivate the big environmental laws, because the new site was outside the congressionally designated cluster.

It took justfive months for Fish and Wildlife to reverse itself. In December, 1993, under the signature of an "acting state director," the agency suddenly gave its approval for the big scope to be relocated without meeting the provisions of the laws. A few days later, the Forest Service also fell into line. There seemed to be a rush.

Early on themorning of December 7, before anyone had a chance to review or appeal the latest Fish and Wildlife and Forest Service decisions, the university dispatched a crew that cut down more than 250 old-growth trees covering about three-quarters of an acre on East Emerald Peak.

"Though the action seems unconscionable, it is not out of character for a university that sees itself above the law," said the Maricopa (Ariz.) Audubon Society president Charles J. Babbitt, brother of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "Cultural law, environmental law, civil rights and freedom of religion no longer matter to the University of Arizona as it goes where no other public university would dare."

Ironically, U of A’s predawn attack that morning may prove fatal to the observatory. Energized by the destruction of the trees, a group of 21 environmental organizations and individuals, under the banner of the Mount Graham Coalition, filed a federal lawsuit in May 1994 asking the court to require the university to comply with the environmental laws before any further work was done at East Emerald Peak.

The coalition won a stunning victory on July 28, 1994, when Tucson-based U.S. District Court Judge Alfredo Marquez ruled in its favor. "It is obvious that formal (environmental assessment) is mandated before this project can continue," Marquez concluded. The university immediately challenged the decision, but an appeals court upheld Marquez this April.

Seven years after the university’s expensive lobbyists had convinced Congress to exempt the university from the nation’s two most important pieces of environmental legislation, the university has come face-to-face with the laws it dreaded most.

Money is never easy

Thanks to the relentless opposition and mounting delays, the university also faces a financial bind. It needs two additional partners willing to pony up at least $15 million each for one-quarter shares in the $60 million Large Binocular Telescope. Student protests helped force Ohio State University to reduce its $15 million share in the project to $2.5 million, and may have helped to dissuade other prospective partners - Michigan State, University of Pittsburgh and the University of Toronto - from signing up.

The U of A and the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory in Italy are the only full partners. While the Arcetri astronomers publicly express strong support for the observatory, they’ve added a clause to their partnership agreement that allows them to walk away with no financial strings attached.

The university has managed to keep the project alive by securing funds from an unusual source - the Tucson-based Research Corporation, which has committed $7.5 million. Backing such a large project is a sharp departure for the Research Corp., which has traditionally sprinkled grants in the $20,000-to-$50,000 range to researchers across the country. This is the largest contribution the 83-year-old Research Corp. has ever made - more than double the size of its second largest, a $3 million project combatting malnutrition in Central America.

Behind this break with tradition is another of the university’s powerful allies. The president of the nonprofit corporation, John Schaefer, was the university’s president from 1971 until 1982. Schaefer said he was willing to commit an equivalent of two years’ worth of Research Corp. grants to the telescopes.

"The project was clearly having financial difficulties and stood in danger of collapsing, and it struck me that they needed financial support," said Schaefer, who built up the university’s astronomy program during his tenure and has a strong interest in optics. But Schaefer also said he didn’t expect the university to need all the money - perhaps $2 million to $3 million would suffice.

The university sees it otherwise.

"We expect to use all of it," said university research vice president Cusanovich.

Research Corp." s contribution, combined with Ohio State’s $2.5 million and $15 million each from U of A and Arcetri, is enough to build a one-mirror, $40 million, "bare-bones’ telescope, according to Strittmatter. He says the second mirror will be added later. U of A is nothing if not confident. It says the one-mirror telescope will work so well that future partners will be easy to find.

Construction of the Large Binocular Telescope is essential to the observatory. Without the big scope, it’s unlikely the two small scopes could afford to stay on top of the remote mountain that is blanketed with snow in the winter and plagued by thunderstorms in the summer. The big scope is expected to be the primary generator of research funds. Opponents believe if they can stop the big scope, the other two would eventually be relocated.

The astronomy community itself has been fractured by the U of A’s ambition. A consortium of European astronomers signed a petition last year opposing the Mount Graham observatory on ecological and religious grounds.

On the U of A’s own campus, Roger Lynds of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory co-authored a 1984 report that ranked Mount Graham 38th out of 56 peaks as a possible large telescope location.

Lynds considers the Mount Graham project to be all about self-aggrandizement. "It’s got nothing to do with science, technology or truth, or the best use of the taxpayers’ money." And he regrets the way the controversy has reflected on the astronomy community at large. "It was very hard to attribute any of the world’s evils to astronomers, and then we do this thing with Mount Graham. It’s a tragedy."


All is quiet on Mount Graham, for now. The federal court order has stopped all work on the Large Binocular Telescope site. A handful of Vatican and German astronomers are working at their telescopes, but no construction is under way. Six biologists are watching red squirrels in a monitoring project that costs the university upwards of $200,000 a year. In Tucson, the university and the Forest Service have quietly challenged the Appeals Court ruling. If that doesn’t work, the university could be looking at up to four years of additional environmental studies. In the meantime, research vice president Cusanovich says the university may relocate the long-coveted Large Binocular Telescope back into the original 8.6-acre cluster, or look to other places - perhaps Mauna Kea (in Hawaii) or Mexico - as potential sites. Production of the first 8.4-meter mirror for the big scope should begin soon at the U of A’s renowned mirror laboratory. No matter what happens from here on, the battle will remain branded on the steepest mountain in Arizona. The clearcut forest will take hundreds of years to regenerate, telescope or not. The fate of the Mount Graham red squirrel remains a question only time will answer. And the bitterness, distrust and opposition sowed by the university’s grand plan to build the world’s largest telescope on a sacred mountain in the home of an endangered squirrel will also remain. N

John Dougherty has been named the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year twice, most recently for work he did in 1994. He writes for the Phoenix weekly, New Times.

Lisa Jones contributed to this story.

This story and the other stories on Mount Graham in this issue were paid for by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

See origional article here

© 1995 High Country News, PO Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428 (970) 527-4898