In the acrimonious conflict over Mount Graham, middle ground is harder to find than red squirrels.
opponents like to say the telescopes will drive the squirrel
extinct. According to the best scientific knowledge, that's not
exactly true. What's likely is that the telescopes will reduce the
squirrel's remaining habitat, increasing the chance the animals
will succumb to poor cone crops, or, more likely, forest fire.
Some supporters of the telescopes like to say
that the squirrel owes its best hope of survival to the telescope
complex, because a mitigation plan goes along with it. Supporters -
including tenured biology professors - have credited the telescope
with everything from halting logging on Mount Graham to listing the
red squirrel as an endangered species.
that the telescope project has spurred a mitigation plan for the
squirrel. But logging on Mount Graham came to a virtual standstill
for economic reasons in the 1970s. And although the mitigation plan
that came with Congress' sanction of the project in 1988 called for
a halt to timber sales on Mount Graham, it didn't change the Forest
Service's plans for the mountain, which had already been laid in
1985: "We weren't going to offer timber any more," says Rich Kvale,
a district ranger with the Coronado National Forest office in
nearby Safford. "We no longer had a sawmill in Safford. And there
was a perception on the part of the environmental community that
logging was evil."
As for the status of the
squirrel, it was classified a threatened species by the Arizona
Department of Fish and Game in 1976. (Interestingly, the
designation allowed it to be hunted for 10 more years.) By the time
the telescope proposal came along, federal biologists were already
considering the squirrel for status as
"This one would have been listed
regardless of whether the scopes were proposed," says Sam Spiller
of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Phoenix.
One piece of information can even support
opposing conclusions. Take, for example, the data on where the
squirrels live. The telescope-containing spruce-fir forest on top
of the mountain is relatively small (the Forest Service reports it
covers about 17 percent of the squirrel's habitat) but rich in
squirrels (it contains about 30 percent of the known population).
So it's true that the summit forest is the richest squirrel
habitat, but it's also true that the lower-lying transitional
forest contains more squirrels.
however, shy away from drawing any broad conclusions based on this
information. Paul Young, the biologist who has been monitoring the
squirrel populations on the mountain since 1989, says that if he
had to rank the mountain's zones, the spruce-fir is probably less
dependable habitat than the transitional forest right below it.
"But in any given year that can turn around, because it depends on
the cone crops," he says. "Which habitat is the best I don't think
anyone can answer yet. No one knows how much habitat you can get
rid of and know the squirrel's going to survive."