Mt. Graham and the University of Arizona Astronomers

Because I spend a part of my life involved with environmental protection issues and with Native American concerns, it is natural that I would be asked about my feelings on the development of Mt. Graham as an astronomical site, in particular, about the way the University of Arizona astronomers have handled their relations with the environmental and Native American groups. Well, I certainly have been asked this question, and each time I have felt embarassment at being an astronomer. My stomach tightens; I stutter. I can offer no justification for their behavior.

When I first moved to Tucson, astronomy was one of the major employers in the city. Astronomers were highly regarded, and astronomy was felt to be a "clean industry." At that time, 1972, the University of Arizona Astronomy Department had not yet begun its period of phenomenal growth. And that, I believe, brings us to the heart of the problem. It is a problem that besets not only astronomy departments, but all of our society. No one wants to run a static organization. To be perceived as active (that is, successful) in this country, one must grow. During the period I lived in Tucson, the University of Arizona Astronomy Department enjoyed continuous growth. They attracted excellent astronomers who were able to support their activities well on the research grants they brought in. They also supported a large number of young people on "soft" money, grant money that was not guaranteed from year to year. To provide the telescope time required by this large group of active astronomers, they needed more observing time than was currently available to them at their telescopes on Kitt Peak, Mt. Lemmon and at the Multiple Mirror Telescope on Mt. Hopkins, south of Tucson. The obvious answer was to build their own observatory. This has been the answer for astronomy departments for the last century. But, until recently, the total number of mountains involved has been very small, and the necessity for sites well above 7000´ is also a fairly recent phenomonon. However, if anyone should, astronomers should understand the implications of exponential growth!

The political situation of an astronomy department that wishes to support a group of active observers within a state university can be difficult. Astronomical observations require special conditions to make investment of large amounts of money in the development of a remote site worthwhile. But the situation of the University of Arizona Astronomy Department was more difficult, by far, than that of most other departments within state universities. It exists in a state heavily populated by observatories (such as the Lowell Observatory and the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, Kitt Peak National Observatory west of Tucson and the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins south of Tucson) and with a long history of welcoming new astronomical enterprises with open arms. Until fairly recently, these operations have had small (but certainly noticible) impact upon their local environments. The most difficult thing for the University of Arizona astronomers to deal with was the fact that state legislatures are always reluctant, if not totally unwilling, to spend their money out of state. It is one thing for the University of Massachusetts Astronomy Department to argue to the Massachusetts legislature that they must locate their facilities out of state because the observing conditions in Massachusetts are inadequate for the purpose, but it is quite another to convince the Arizona legislature of the truth of that statement.

To compound their problems, a large scale site survey was being conducted by the National Optical Astronomical Observatories (across Cherry Avenue from Steward Observatory and the University of Arizona Astronomy Department) to find the best northern hemisphere site for the Gemini 8 Meter Telescope. The two principal sites in contention for the telescope location were Mauna Kea in Hawaii, already developed and home of a large number of international observatories (The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, the Joint Astronomy Centre, incorporating the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, and the University of Hawaii telescopes, among others) and the previously completely undeveloped (for astronomical use) Mt. Graham site. The Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii provides a map of the Mauna Kea mountain top to allow you to identify the numerous facilities there. There was intense politicking that took place across Cherry Avenue before the final site selection for the Gemini northern hemisphere telescope was made. The release of the report (in March 1987), selecting the Mauna Kea site, cited the bad weather pattern on Mt. Graham, which leads to a smaller number of nights available for astronomical observing and the mountaintop topography and vegetation as negative factors. This choice was not met with happiness on the west side (the university side) of Cherry Avenue. It meant the absence of support from the National Optical Astronomical Observatories for the Mt. Graham site as well as the loss of a major facility for the proposed Mt. Graham International Observatory.

At the same time there has been considerable opposition, both locally and nationally, from environmental groups whose main focus has been upon the destruction of habitat of the endangered red squirrel by the proposed construction. While it is true that Earth First! was certainly the most vocal organization in the active opposition to the development of the Mt. Graham site, and several acts of "eco-terrorism," indiscriminately performed against both University of Arizona and non-University of Arizona astronomy facilities, were attributed to this group, they were by no means the only environmental protection group opposed to the observatory. The groups now being labeled as irresponsible "activists"¹ by the University of Arizona spokesmen include the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Arizona Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the Southern Arizona Hiking Club, the Arizona Wildlife Society, the Arizona Game & Fish Commission, the Cochise Conservation Council, the Arizona Native Plants Society, the Southwest Center for Biodiversity, the Gila Biodiversity Project, Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife, the Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, the Humane Society of America, the National Parks and Conservation Association, the National Wildlife Federation, the Wilderness Society and numerous others. Other diverse organizations were also in opposition: the Arizona Arms Association, Arizona Bowhunters Association, Arizona Flycasters Association, Arizona Muzzleloaders Association, Flagstaff Archers, the Gray Panthers Partners, and Trout Unlimited. I am a member of some of these groups and do believe in what they stand for. I find it hard to accept the characterization of such mainstream organizations as the National Audubon Society, the Humane Society of America and The Nature Conservancy as extremists.

The U.S. Forest Service also stood in the way of the beginning of construction on Mt. Graham. It was necessary for them to approve any project to be placed within lands which they administered and to see that the required environmental impact studies were performed. The original U of A proposal was for a complex of 18 telescopes to be built at the site. The Forest Service, the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the US Fish and Wildlife Service surveyed the mountaintop and documented the plant and animal life supported by this ecosystem. Even though their survey was only cursory and did not look beneath the heavy cover of litter on the forest floor, they also found evidence of ancient shrines within the area under consideration for the observatory. In southern Arizona the mountaintops form very special ecological niches within the overall desert environment. Only the birds and larger mammals who live in these systems are able to move from one to the other across the large, dry desert basins between the mountains. These habitats are known as mountain islands, where the desert acts very effectively as the ocean around them, preventing movement of the inhabitants to other mountain islands when they are forced from their homes by either natural or manmade forces. Among this group, Mt. Graham holds a special place. It is the home of the southernmost extension of many species as well as being, simultaneously, the location of the northernmost extension of others. The Sonoran and Chihuahuan desert populations also meet in this vicinity. Thus it was critical to assess the impact of the proposed observatory presence upon the species represented on the top of Mt. Graham, especially those listed as endangered or threatened. In 1987, in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the US Forest Service recommended limiting the number of telescopes to be built to 5 on High Peak.

In response to this recommendation, the University of Arizona argued for a minimum of 7 telescopes to be split between two sites, High Peak and Emerald Peak. In one response they stated that the limitation to 5 telescopes "was not economically viable." Anticipating that they would not be allowed to proceed as they wished if the public hearing process required by the National Environmental Policy Act were allowed to continue, they pressured their Congressional delegation for immediate action to grant them a waiver of the Act's requirements. Shortly after, in November 1988, the Arizona-Idaho Conservation Act (AICA) was passed and Title VI did what the University of Arizona asked. The University's lawyers argued that the AICA allowed the construction of the first three telescopes without regard for environmental or cultural objections. Congress also allowed four other telescopes to be built, subject to all United States laws.

A review of the passage of the Mt. Graham International Observatory question through the bureaucratic maze toward approval by the US Forest Service, written by Paul Hirt when he was a Ph.D. candidate and instructor of U.S. history at the University of Arizona, documents the political interference that has plagued every step of the process. Editorials in the Arizona Daily Star (the Tucson morning paper) and the Tucson Citizen (the evening paper) condemned the University's stance and their interference with the legally mandated process of approval. The campus was split, even within departments. Students and alumni at institutions which were either involved or considering involvment in the Mt. Graham International Observatory protested to the administrations of those institutions, being at least partially responsible for many of them dropping out of the collaboration. Editorials critical of the University of Arizona handling of the project appeared in technical journals and stories on the controversy appeared in newspapers all over the world. The campus newspaper, the Daily Wildcat, has documented the continuing saga of Mt. Graham protests and legal action.

There is another issue which has come to the fore more recently than the environmental issues. This is the issue of the religious significance of Mt. Graham to the Apache tribe, specifically those living on the San Carlos Reservation. As mentioned above, the presence of several shrines on the mountain was noted in the original survey of the mountaintop made by the Forest Service. At that time, it is stated, letters were sent to those tribal leaders thought by the University and the Forest Service to be the proper people to address the relevance of these shrines to the religion of their tribes. In fact, the assumption was made that notification of the current secular authorities was sufficient to assure that all religious groups within the tiribe were informed, something we certainly would not accept if applied to our own society. Would the Catholic Church accept the opinion of the leader of the Native American Church on the O'Odham Reservation on the sacredness of San Xavier del Bac Mission? The fact that the San Carlos Apaches did not reply at that time is taken to be evidence that they had no interest in Mt. Graham and that the mountain was not of any importance to them. This statement by Fr. George Coyne has been answered by anthropologists, both challenging the quality of the original Forest Service survey and the historical knowledge of Father Coyne (Elizabeth Brandt), and by a detailed discussion of Apache religious structure and practice by one of the acknowledged experts in the field, Keith Basso. This last discussion contains a statement directed specifically at the treatment of the Apache tribe by the University of Arizona:

"I was privileged to teach at the University of Arizona for fifteen years. I considered it then, as I do today, a superior institution in many respects. I believe, however, that the University's handling of the Mount Graham issue, with regard to the Apache people of San Carlos, has been unfortunate and disturbing. More specifically, I believe that the University's position on Mount Graham displays a stunning lack of regard for Apache religious beliefs, as well as the moral and ethical standards that for centuries have sustained them.

As I understand it, this position of indifference and disregard has been produced by two sets of issues. The first arrives from a powerful desire to consolidate the University's position as an international center of astronomical research. The second stems from widespread ignorance within the University of important aspects of San Carlos Apache culture, and from attendant expressions of arrogance and insensitivity that cultural ignorance so typically engenders."

I strongly recommend that you read this testimony in its entirety ( were it still available online) in order to understand the apparently late entry of the San Carlos Apaches into this controversy, especially the apparent spread of opinion on the issue within the tribe. The statement also includes commentary on the lack of previous opposition to development on Mt. Graham by the San Carlos Apaches:
"Representatives of the University and its affiliated institutions have questioned why the Apache did not oppose the construction in the 1930's with a paved road here on Mount Graham. The answer is two-fold. First, the new road provided easier access to clear sites on the mountain. And this was welcomed as a convenience by older people who had difficulty walking. Second and more important, the road was not perceived by Apaches as constituting irrevocable damage to the mountain or to its environment. Like modern civil engineers, the Apache knew that the surfaces of old paved roads will crack and break apart, especially at higher elevations where variations and temperatures are extreme. Soon enough, weeds and granules appear in the cracks and all portions of the road grass over. Later, after several years, much of the road will have returned to its original state. Needless to say, gigantic slabs and poured concrete, topped by buildings fashioned by equally permanent materials is something else again. As perceived by Apaches, and surely their perception is correct, these things are designed to resist the inevitable forces of nature. These things are made to last forever. And that, courtesy of the University, is irrevocable damage."
It should be noted as well that resolutions requesting that the University of Arizona stop the building on Mt Graham. They are supported by the Tohono O'odham Tribe, long time enemies of the Apache, the Kaibab-Paiute Tribe, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community among a long list of other supporters, including the councils of several cities in Italy, appealing to the Italian astronomers to leave the Mt. Graham consortium, a large group of scientists and a collaboration of urban Indians and Italian-Americans.

Recently (January 1995) the American Astronomical Society held its semi-annual meeting in Tucson, co-hosted by a group of observatories located in Tucson. On the second day of the meeting a group of protesters showed up. Among the protestors were graduate students in ecology and biology and Europeans as well as Native Americans. The presence of these peaceful protestors provoked the most remarkable behavior among the astronomers, especially some of the University of Arizona astronomers. Guards were stationed at the meeting room doors to check badges and allow entry only to those registered for the meeting. One University of Arizona astronomer actually stood near the protesters and insisted that anyone who spoke with the protesters take his material as well.

It is this material, distributed by (and written by) the astronomers at the University of Arizona, that clearly demonstrates the thinking of this group. The material that was passed out included copies of a paper published in the British science journal Nature ¹, written by Bruce Walsh, Roger Angel & Peter Strittmatter. The latter two authors are astronomers at the University of Arizona, Angel being the Director of the Mirror Lab and Strittmatter being the Director of Steward Observatory and Chairman of the Astronomy Department. Walsh is in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona. The title of the paper (printed in the COMMENTARY section of the journal) was Endangered telescopes or species? with a banner subheading:

The planned international observatory at Mount Graham, Arizona, provides a model of how environmental concerns should be met in a project of this size. But it remains vulnerable to irresponsible "activists".

It seems strange to me, in an era of unprecendented telescope construction, to pose the question as one of telescopes or species. Not included in the above list are two proposed optical and infrared interferometers: the Infrared and Optical Telescope Array (IOTA) and the CHARA Array. There are also two deep near infrared sky surveys beginning, one for the southern sky only, DEep Near Infrared Survey of the Southern Sky (DENIS) and an all sky survey the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). There are also major radio frequency projects being undertaken.

In light of the above list, probably not complete, it is very hard to argue that telescopes are endangered. But perhaps new telescopes in Arizona are endangered, given the shortage of new sites and the environmental considerations. One answer to this is the above mentioned WIYN Observatory, which was built on a "recycled site". Originally a 1 m telescope operated on this site. This telescope was removed and the structure demolished to make room for the WIYN telescope. The trade, albeit at the cost of some psychological pain for the users of the old telescope, has been a great gain in efficiency.

Other arguments made in the Nature article were that the Forest Service biological opinions were in favor of the observatory construction. However a General Accounting Office investigation found that the Forest Service had ignored the biological opinions when issuing permits for the observatory, basing their decisions on purely political factors. This finding is the basis for the current court order stopping further work.

Arguments for the quality of the site are made doubtful by the heavy forestation of the mountaintop, arguing for substantial rain/snow fall. This is also documented by long term rainfall patterns. It is well known that the average weather pattern shows an increase in precipitation as you move eastward across the state. The arguements of "heavy prior use" of the mountain do not generally refer to the area under consideration, specifically the mountain top.

The authors also argue, based on very short term population surveys, that the red squirrel population is actually increasing on Mt. Graham. This assumes that the long term effect on the red squirrel population can be measured by surveys taken a couple of years apart with no attempt made to separate the effects of all of the variables (weather, food supply, seasonal movements, etc.) and not taking into account the fact that statistics must be carefully done on populations this small in order to have any validity.

They also decry the large amount of money spent in the protests against the observatory, as well as that they have spent in litigation. But the amount of money spent by the protesters cannot possibly compare with that spent by the University on lobbyists in Washington in order to bypass the legally mandated processes. Nonetheless, they accuse the protestors of being the ones to manipulate environmental laws.

One of the most curious aspects of the article is that the authors nowhere mention the protests of the Apache Survival Coalition or the religious nature of their claims to Mt. Graham. Yet a month later an unsigned editorial ² appeared in Nature supporting the position of the University of Arizona astronomers stating, again in a banner headline:

Apaches against stars

There is no merit in the campaign of the Apache Survival Coalition against the Mount Graham telescope.
Can this diatribe have been occasioned by a single one column letter replying to the statements in the previous article? It would seem a bit extreme, if that is so. The editorial focuses on the relationship of the shrines found in the original mountaintop survey to the Apache, something the Apache Survival Coalition does not even claim. The Apache Survival Coalition arguments are based upon Mt. Graham as the home of the ga'an, the mountain spirits who give the Apache guidance, direction, knowledge and healing. Their opposition to the development of Mt. Graham has nothing to do with the shrines found there.

The editorial points out that the San Carlos Tribal Council once took a position of neutrality on the issue of the development of Mt. Graham. What is not mentioned is the fact that the Tribal Council Chairman at the time of that vote is now under indicrment for the embezzlement of funds from the tribe. More traditional tribal members are now well represented on the Council. Also not mentioned is the fact that the University is paying for the travel of the deposed tribal chairman to travel to Europe to proseltyze for the Mt. Graham Observatory.

The editorial writer finds sinister implications in the fact that some of the same names are found associated with both the environmental protestors and the Apache Survival Coalition. I simply find it logical that they should support one another, to find common cause.

It is difficult to know the credentials of the editorial writer since the piece was unsigned. The writer does not care to inform us as to where he/she obtained the knowledge of American environmental law and Native American cultural and religious history. However, neither he nor the University of Arizona authors choose to express their opinions in an American publication.

I have not enjoyed having some of my astronomical collegues place me a position of having to defend actions with which I cannot concur. But this is what they have done. For years I have felt constrained by the fact that having amicable relations with other astronomy departments is obviously desirable. I have friends within the University of Arizona Astronomy Department. Obviously I do not wish to alienate them. The fact that I do not currently live in the southwest has made it somewhat easier for me because I am not daily confronted by the totally unnecessary habitat destruction occuring on Mt. Graham. But, in writing this larger work, I have been bringing together into one person all the parts of my soul so that I may truly become whole. To do that it is absolutely necessary that I make my opposition to the University of Arizona projects on Mt. Graham clear. I am sorry if this hurts some of my collegues at U of A, but I can no longer be held hostage to their political and financial interests.

I have known for a long time that I would have to write this piece, but it was brought home to me with force when I attended the dedication of the WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak in October 1994. The dedication ceremony was intended to take place outdoors at the telescope site, a site that has been recycled. Because of the passage of a strong storm front, the dedication was forced indoors into very crowded circumstances in the mountaintop museum, with men lifting children to their shoulders to see the proceedings. Besides the usual ribbon cutting ceremonies and speeches, a significant portion of the ceremony was dedicated to the blessing of the new facility by a medicine man from the Tohono O'odham. The ceremony, while conducted in a language understood by few of those in attendance, still held them silent and spellbound. Even children who had previously been restless to be confined in such tight quarters became intent upon the activities. As the ceremony required that a bowl containing burning plant material be carried around the room while accompanied by song, a path opened before the singer as the guests quietly and in unison stepped back as he approached. At this time it was clearly brought home to me that this could never occur on Mt. Graham.

In their conquest of Mexico, it was common practice for the Spanish priests to build a church on top of the monumental pyramids of the local culture, as a symbol of domination and cultural superiority, as at Cholula. They do not appear to have abandoned that strategy.

¹ Walsh, B., Angel, R. & Strittmatter, P. 1994, Nature, 372, 215. (17 November 1994)
² Editorial (unsigned) 1994, Nature, 372, 380. (15 December, 1994).
The battle over the proper use of forest land and the environmental consequences of this use is not restricted to this country. In the province of British Columbia, Canada, an active battle is being waged over the forestry practices in that region. The Knowledge Network has produced a set of 8 programs, Forests of Trees, Forests of Images, Forests of Words, focussing on different parts of the problem and the perspectives of the protagonists, including the indigenous population. They have established a set of webpages covering the Nisga'a Treaty, including the forest use agreements.
Unfortunately much of the material from the Envirolink gopher that I had used for documentation has disappeared without the intervention of the webmaster there. Some of the missing material is now back online and may be seen at the Dzil Nchaa Si An: Sacred Mountain, Sacred Land established by John J. Campo at the University of California at Davis.
Biologist Bruce Walsh has his lecture notes on the red squirrel population statistics available online.
Making a mountain into a starbase: The long, bitter battle over Mount Graham by John Dougherty from The High Country News online archive.

The Apache Survival Coalition has a page on the now defunct Planet Peace site.

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