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Mountain Under Heavens, by Gregory McNamee
by Gregory McNamee

From the tallest building in Tucson, Arizona, whenever the dust and automobile exhaust are down, a clear-eyed observer can see four astronomical observatories in as many directions. The oldest, on the campus of the University of Arizona, has been in use since the first years of the twentieth century, before the discovery of the planet Pluto. The others are of more recent vintage: the Mount Lemmon complex north of the city and Kitt Peak National Observatory, near the Baboquívari Mountains to the west, date to the 1960s. The Mount Hopkins Multiple-Mirror Telescope complex, in the Santa Rita range on the road south to Mexico, opened in 1973, in the days when southern Arizona's night sky blazed with stars now hidden by evidence of our progress.

Beyond the city lie many other observatories. Of southeastern Arizona's dozen major mountain ranges, only a few lack astronomical facilities. For years astronomers from around the world have traveled to Tucson to take their turn at one or another of these observatories, so many that homegrown junior scholars have difficulty booking time to complete their research projects. The demand for more and more scopes is consequently high. Used to having their way in a place billed as "the Wall Street of space science," the astronomers were not prepared to take seriously Arizona congressman Morris Udall's warning, at the dedication of the Mount Hopkins complex, that they allot their resources conservatively. For this, he said, would be the last southern Arizona mountaintop to be shaved off in the name of science.

Udall was wrong.

The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, with its 1.8-m f/1.0 honeycombed, borosilicate primary mirror, atop Mt. Graham.
Photo courtesy MGIO.

The Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope, jointly funded by the Max Planck Institut fůr Radioastronome, Germany.
Photo by J. Slagle, courtesy MGIO. 

           The Large Binocular Telescope,
           currently under construction on
           Emerald Peak.
Photo courtesy MGIO.

Rather than reduce the number of observers and make do with what was already an embarrassment of riches, the administration of the University of Arizona, determined to safeguard the school's leadership in space science, turned to the last of the scopeless mountains: the Pinaleño range, a hundred miles east of Tucson. The 10,700-foot summit, Mount Graham, seemed an ideal spot for a new observatory, with no city lights to obscure the faint glow of faraway galaxies, few turbulent windstreams, and little humidity in the desert air. Lying within the Coronado National Forest just outside the San Carlos Apache Reservation (the Apache name for the range is Dzil naá chán, Big Seated Mountain) the range had been hunted, logged, mined, and grazed-for such is the inevitable fate of land in the public domain-and a network of roads led nearly to its top. The job of subduing the mountain had been under way for decades; all that remained for the university was to build a modern highway, clearcut the old-growth spruce and fir forest, and wrest away the secrets of the firmament.

But, the university learned, matters were more complicated than that. In the early 1980s Udall, then the chairman of the House Interior Committee, saw to it that the Pinaleños were included in the Arizona Wilderness Bill, which would have protected vast tracts of the public domain from the U.S. Forest Service's disastrous multiple-use doctrine. The university protested that it had other ideas for the mountains' future, and, by way of compromise, the committee filed the high peaks of the range away in a proposed wilderness-study area, leaving the peaks open to development. A delighted university administration turned to its blueprints and refined its plans to clear away three thousand acres of forest along the range's two highest points, Mount Graham and Emerald Peak, for an astronomical complex that would house eighteen giant telescopes.

Another complication then kept the university from immediately razing the area.

Mt. Graham.
Mt. Graham and the Pinaleños Mountains.
Photo by J. Ratje, courtesy MGIO.

Ecologists call the mountains of the basin-and-range provinces of the Greater Southwest "mountain islands" because they stand in roughly the same relation to the surrounding desert as an island does to the sea, wet islands in a vast arid ocean. Isolated, the mountains harbor animal and plant populations that in time differentiate themselves from their kin, so that a cougar, say, in the Black Mountains of New Mexico will bear slightly different markings from one in the White Mountains of Arizona, a scant hundred miles away. For wide-ranging animals like the mountain lion and the black bear, which travel among the ranges through the net of riparian corridors connecting them, these differences will be small. For more sedentary populations, they will become more and more pronounced as time passes. Atop Mount Graham, one such population, one of eighteen unique species there, held the space scientists at bay.

This was Tamiasciurus hudsonicus grahamensis, a subspecies of the common red squirrel, a denizen of the spruce-fir forests of the mountain islands. Long a target of hunters who presumably prized the animal more for its coat than for the small meal it provides, the Mount Graham red squirrel population had declined by the early 1980s to only thirty or so mating pairs, no more than a hundred individuals in all, a count small enough to warrant its being entered on the federal roster of endangered species. Although in times of want the squirrel descends into the lower mixed-conifer zone, its preferred habitat is the highest peaks of the Pinaleños-exactly where the University of Arizona wanted to build its astronomical complex, in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, the Vatican Observatory, the University of Chicago, and the Max Planck Institute of Germany.

Mt. Graham red squirrel, photo by R. Silver, courtesy High Country News.Owing to the endangered status of Tamiasciurus hudsonicus grahamensis, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered that the telescope complex not be built until it conducted an environmental impact study as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. Fearing that the Fish and Wildlife Service would eventually determine, as some of its officers were then arguing, that the red squirrel habitat be closed to any development whatever and that the Pinaleños be readmitted into the Arizona Wilderness Bill, the university went to war. Its administration hired the Washington law firm of Patton, Biggs and Blow, which had engineered the multibillion-dollar Chrysler Corporation bailout of the early 1980s, to lobby the House Interior Committee to hold Mount Graham exempt from a constellation of environmental protection laws and the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. Arizona senator John McCain reportedly told director James Abbott that if these exemptions were not forthcoming he "would be the shortest-tenured supervisor in the history of the Forest Service."

Millions of dollars later, the university had its way. Although Arizona voters overwhelmingly opposed the scopes, Morris Udall-the best representative Alaska ever had, people around here were once fond of saying-and his colleagues endorsed a rider to the Arizona-Idaho Conservation Bill of 1988 that left the high Pinaleños open to construction. Top University of Arizona administrators and astronomers celebrated this legislative end run by throwing a party, the centerpiece of which was a papier-mâché piñata in the shape of a Mount Graham red squirrel.

Aerial view of Emerald Peak.
Aerial view of the Large Binocular Telescope on Emerald Peak, July 1999.
Photo by J. Ratje, courtesy MGIO.

The lobbying worked both ways, however. Thanks to the efforts of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and agitation from Earth First!, Greenpeace, the Audubon Society, and other environmental groups, Congress whittled down the university's original demands to an 8.6-acre site that would house eight telescopes. In the ensuing chain of injunctions and counterinjunctions, the Fish and Wildlife Service demanded that an environmental impact study be conducted despite the congressional ruling, and even the Forest Service agreed that the law must be obeyed. Environmental organizations nationwide joined the cause, and the University of Arizona administration building became the site of frequent demonstrations of the sort Tucson had not seen since the early 1970s. 

The leaders of the San Carlos Apache nation, whose domain included the Pinaleño Mountains until 1877, when Anglo miners began to strip them for their minerals and metals, reminded the university that mountaintops are properly sacred in Apache belief and suggested that enough summits had already been sacrificed for science. They also pointed out the impropriety of studying the cosmos with materials like steel and glass that had been violently wrested from the earth. The popular mystery writer Tony Hillerman weighed in, remarking that to build scopes atop Mount Graham "would be as bad as the Israeli government putting a radar tower on top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre."

The presiding judges of the Ninth Federal Circuit Court ruled in favor of the protesters one day, the astronomical coalition the next, adding to the mounting tangle of legal claims on both sides. And so it went for the next two years, with construction delays costing the University of Arizona-that is to say, the taxpayers of Arizona-$25,000 a day, a sum approaching a beginning assistant professor's annual salary.

Local bumpersticker: Extinction is Forever.The university eventually broke through. During a lull in the legal combat during the summer of 1990, the judges having momentarily rested in its favor, the university ordered its crew of lumberers to clearcut the Mount Graham site. In a few hours some two hundred and fifty old-growth spruce and fir fell before the chainsaws, and another three hundred saplings were removed and replanted down the slope. (Half later died.) Red-squirrel middens were bulldozed, a construction road was hurriedly scraped into the rocky forest floor, and the issue of Mount Graham descended from abstraction into bitter reality.

When the 1991 winter's accumulation of snow had melted, the remaining legal arguments against the scopes had been turned away from the bench. The university proceeded with the construction of the scopes, having lost several of its original partners, only to discover that its architects had miscalculated the prevailing wind patterns at the turbulent "tree layer," whereupon it petitioned the government to move the entire facility higher up the slope. And, as anticipated, the red squirrel population began to decline almost immediately, since its preferred habitat had been chewed up and spat out.

And so it went, the lawsuits flying back and forth. In July 1994 a federal circuit judge set an injunction against further construction until a proper environmental impact statement had been issued. The injunction held until May 1996, when Congress passed a $160 billion spending bill in which a tiny but significant sentence was buried. Introduced by Rep. James Kolbe, it allowed for new telescope construction on Mount Graham without an EIS. Other riders that would have allowed increasing logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest and opening newly acquired federal holdings in the Mojave Desert to development were defeated, but the Mount Graham rider stood-despite a personal promise Bill Clinton made to leaders of the San Carlos Apache Nation that he would veto any such legislation. As if to demonstrate its disapproval, Mount Graham responded by catching fire nearly the minute the spending bill was passed into law. Nearly 1,500 acres burned until the fire was contained at a point just below the telescope complex.

And so it goes. Nothing, it seems, can hold back the ongoing construction of the scopes atop Mount Graham, short of another fire, this time all-consuming, or some unexpected turn in the legislative ethos, or a new Apache uprising.

The Mount Graham red squirrel, so seemingly insignificant, is but one of the thousands of species marched off to extinction in the twentieth century at the hands of humankind. It may be that Tamiasciurus hudsonicus grahamensis will find a new habitat in the mixed-conifer zone below the high peaks, but its survival is improbable in the extreme. No one can yet foresee the effects of its absence, but it will surely be felt on the mountain, for small creatures are invariably more important to a habitat than its megafauna; a honeybee shapes an environment far more profoundly than does an elk. The owls and hawks and eagles that feed on the red squirrel must find new prey or move on, the pine cones that sustained the Mount Graham red squirrel will go ungathered, and the grahamensis subspecies itself will perhaps be remembered only through a piñata and a few stuffed specimens gathered surreptitiously by university biologists.

Spring snowstorm, Mt. Graham.
Spring snowstorm on Mt. Graham.
Photo by J. Ratje, courtesy MGIO.

The heart of the issue is not the red squirrel, for its population had dwindled to the point where recovery may not have been possible in any event; extinction is not the exception but the norm in life, and extinction may have been the squirrel's only future. The issue is the mountain itself. Mount Graham stands as a small example of the rapacity of modern corporatism, of which the modern university and scientific community are an integral part. A tract of 8.6 acres seems scarcely worth noticing in the face of corporatism's recent accomplishments: since 1970, after all, more than a million acres of virgin old-growth forest have been clearcut in the United States alone. The 8.6 acres of ancient forest atop the Pinaleño Mountains were clearcut by the colluding first-world powers of science, government, and academia, an unholy trinity that serves commerce to produce the earth's larger losses.

The tale of Mount Graham is an old story, repeated at many times and many places. In the third-century Aesopica you will find a fable that could well have been set in southern Arizona at the dawn of the new millennium. It reads:

An astronomer used to wander outside each night to look at the stars. One evening, as he walked through town staring at the sky, he fell into a deep well. He cried for help until a neighbor arrived and called down to him. Learning what had happened, the neighbor said, "Why pry into the heavens when you can't see what's right here on Earth?"

Until science is able to answer the villager's question, until the doctrine of multiple use of public lands is suspended, until political and economic corporatism is stemmed, we will remain blind to what lies before us.


Gregory McNamee is the founding editor of Sonora Woodworks, an editorial and publishing service.  He is also the author of the recently released book of essays, Blue Mountains Far Away: Journeys Into the American Wilderness (The Lyons Press, 2000), and the editor of The Mountain World: A Literary Journey (Sierra Club Books, 2000).  A resident of Tucson, Arizona, McNamee has written or edited 18 books, and published numerous essays and articles in such magazines as Sierra, Orion, and Audubon.  He also serves as environmental editor for Amazon.com.

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Mount Graham Timeline, by High Country News

University of Arizona's Mount Graham International Observatory

San Carlos Apache Tribe Mount Graham Preservation Efforts


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