Mt. Graham telescope rides through Congress


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.

The rider, 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 court.

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.

In 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."

University of Arizona vice president Michael Cusanovich says the third telescope will go up as soon as the fires are out.

Heather Abel, HCN researcher, reporter

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