The setting was as apocalyptic as a Gothic novel: While President Clinton was signing the bill April 26 approving the University of Arizona's construction of a third telescope on Mount Graham, fire raced through the Coronado National Forest, up the base of the mountain, into red squirrel habitat and toward the two telescopes already pointed at the stars. Firefighters tried everything from using sprinklers to cutting small trees and removing "ladder fuels' to control the blaze, which came within a mile of the observatory.
The Mount Graham
observatory has always been in the hot seat (HCN, 7/24/95).
Although a go-ahead for the third scope was one of the few
anti-environmental riders that slipped through the 1996 spending
bill, the story isn't over. The rider may not even do what the
university thought it would do.
sponsored by senior appropriations committee member Rep. Jim Kolbe,
R-Ariz., was intended to overturn an order from a federal appeals
court that stopped the university from building its $60 million
telescope until it examined the impacts on the proposed site.
But unclear legislative language could hobble
the university's plans. Attorney Eric Glitzenstein, who works with
project opponents, says the rider may not accomplish what it set
out to do - exempt telescope construction from environmental
studies required by the law. These studies could force the
telescope's relocation to a site less harmful to habitat and sacred
Indian ground. Glitzenstein also believes the rider violates the
Constitution's separation of powers because it is not the role of
Congress to reverse the decision of a federal appeals
Although no one will speak for the record,
one member of the Clinton administration says the president
accepted the rider precisely because the language was loose. The
rider got as far as it did, says Jason Alderman, aide to Sen.
Sidney Yates, D-Ill., because national environmental groups paid
little attention to the issue, and the Forest Service raised no
objections and even obstructed opponents by "being slow at
providing us with information and stabbing us in the back at every
turn." Long-time telescope opponent Robin Silver adds that the
Democratic congressman from Arizona, Ed Pastor, was jockeying for
the role of "best friend" to the university.
the end, the Mount Graham rider's low profile may have allowed it
to pass. Alderman says the administration picked five other riders
to adamantly oppose. "There was never an explicit deal of that
nature. But as a participant, I can tell you the message was very
clear from the White House."
Arizona vice president Michael Cusanovich says the third telescope
will go up as soon as the fires are out.