Mount Graham Red Squirrel Habitat Threatened by Observatory Construction

The Mount Graham red squirrel, protected under the Endangered Species Act, is at the center of a debate over construction of an observatory on Emerald Peak in Arizona's Coronado National Forest.

| May/June 1990

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    The Mount Graham red squirrel is not the only issue on Emerald Peak. So is the fate of rare plants.

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Emerald Peak, AZ — The sky is so clear you're sure it will crack and descend in a cataract of starlit fragments if you speak too sharply in the night. And that is the problem up on Mount Graham, located in the Coronado National Forest, a couple of hours northeast of the neon lights of Tucson, Arizona. It is an ideal place to look at the stars. And on one of Mount Graham's several peaks, Emerald Peak, the University of Arizona wants to build a $200 million observatory consisting of seven telescopes. To this eight-acre island of science would also troop a holy alliance of astronomers from West Germany, Italy and two of the most venerable and revered institutions in the world, the Smithsonian and the Vatican.

The trouble is that Emerald Peak is inhabited already by two other entities, one invisible and the other nearly so. Invisible to all but the nearby San Carlos Apaches are the mountain spirits who taught the tribe to hunt. Nearly invisible until recently are some 100 members of a subspecies known as the Mount Graham red squirrel. In addition, the peak is home to several species of plants so rare they don't even have names yet.

How muddy can waters get in the more noble affairs of man? Few of us will deny that the goals of astronomy are pure: to see back in time to the faintest objects in the expanding universe, to look in on the origins of the creation. That the Vatican itself is involved in a dialogue between science and theology puts a wondrous spin on the whole affair. But the Mount Graham red squirrel is protected under the secular laws of the United States, in particular the Federal Endangered Species Act, and environmentalists fear that institutionalized stargazing here could well push the squirrel—and some of the rare plants—into that fearful extinction abyss. So activists are furious.

Acting on the advice of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Congress approved the project in 1988, and construction began. Demonstrations were held at the Smithsonian, and Earth First!-ers flung themselves before advancing bulldozers. As of March 1990, a suit brought by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to seek an injunction against further construction was still pending.

What a mess! The Smithsonian, for example, a leader in both astronomy and natural history, is also currently in the business of currying the trust of the Native American community, the better to get its new National Museum of the American Indian off the ground. The Vatican, in a sense to atone for its less-than-Solomonic treatment of Galileo, is seeking a rapprochement with the old fellow's science. Meanwhile, the Pope himself is in the position of having blessed this project but also having condemned both the degradation of ecosystems and the rampant and unconsidered spread of science and technology in an environmental message delivered earlier this year.

Meanwhile, University of Arizona astronomers—sounding just a bit like your typical developer in what is happily called "multiple use of national forestlands"—say the mountain has already been logged and is used each summer by, yes, a Bible class. (Actually, they originally planned to build the observatory on the deforested section of nearby High Peak, but the site was changed to heavily wooded Emerald Peak.) The ecologists at the university, however, decry the flouting of environmental laws and principles. And the Apaches mutter veiled threats, suggesting that, wait and see, the old mountain gods have their own forms of redress.


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