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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
invoked the name of God.
whoever searches here night and day the far reaches of space use it
joyfully with the help of God," Kitcheyan said in a joyless
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
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
Each side hates the
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
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
"They are whores,"
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
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.
The University of Arizona was founded in
1885 with its mission focused entirely on the
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.
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
But when it came to finding a site for
the university's largest astronomy project yet, the mountains near
Tucson 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
the OK from Udall, DeConcini attached the university's tightly
focused provision to an omnibus land exchange bill. No hearings
"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."
passed Congress in October 1988.
How much for a sacred
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
"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
"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."
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.
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
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.
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
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
which way the wind blows
The university also
needed to keep a scientific secret.
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
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
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.
Astronomer Strittmatter scoffs at the idea of the necessity of a
240-foot tower, emphasizing the leaked document was merely a draft:
"I have lots of drafts that say silly things," he
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
Moving out of
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
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."
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
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
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 just five 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 the morning 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
"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.
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.
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
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
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
"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
"We expect to use
all of it," said university research vice president
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
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
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
A handful of Vatican and German
astronomers are working at their telescopes, but no construction is
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
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.
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.
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,
Lisa Jones contributed to this
This story and the other stories on Mount
Graham in this issue were paid for by a grant from the Ford