By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The red squirrel needs a continuous overstory of spruce-fir and mixed conifers to ensure its long-term survival. Openings in the forest allow more heat to penetrate to the forest floor, drying out pine cones stored in squirrel middens and increasing squirrel mortality. Openings also make the squirrel vulnerable to predators.
But the only way UofA could build its telescopes along the long ridge atop the Pinalenos was to open up parts of the spruce-fir forest. Roads needed to be built and land cleared for the telescope sites and support buildings.
The conflict came to a head on June 3, 1987, when the Mount Graham red squirrel was formally recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered. The designation means Fish and Wildlife must look at any impact on federal lands that could threaten the "survival and recovery" of an endangered species.
There is no doubt among most biologists who have studied the red squirrel that it was already in a precarious state before any telescope construction occurred on the mountain. It was therefore no surprise that Fish and Wildlife and Arizona Game and Fish field biologists were opposed to any construction of telescopes in critical squirrel habitat. A 1987 Fish and Wildlife Service report stated "that because of the squirrel's low population levels, no reduced protection of important habitats could be supported biologically."
But biology wasn't going to stop UofA.
@body:Soon after the red squirrel was designated as endangered, UofA began holding a series of meetings with top officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Fish and Wildlife was the crucial agency because it would decide what, if any, development could take place on the mountain.
Pressure was exerted on Fish and Wildlife Service field biologists from their bosses to come up with a plan that would not only protect the red squirrel but also allow for UofA to build telescopes.
Fish and Wildlife field supervisor Sam Spiller and field biologist Lesley Fitzpatrick told General Accounting Office investigators that their superiors--regional director Michael Spear and deputy regional director Jim Young--had instructed them to come up with a preordained development alternative. Such an approach violated the Endangered Species Act, which requires biologists to issue a no-development plan if that is what is needed to protect the endangered species.
"They told Sam Spiller, my boss, that if his shop couldn't produce a BO [biological opinion] with a development option, then they would get someone else to do it," Fitzpatrick told GAO investigator Cheryl Williams in 1990.
Spiller told Sierra Club attorneys in a deposition that he was instructed to prepare a biological opinion in late May 1988 that would permit the telescope project to be placed on the relatively flat and wide Emerald Peak. The order came after Spear and Young held another meeting with UofA officials.
Emerald Peak is located in a dense, tall stand of spruce and fir. Its importance to the red squirrel's survival was well-known. "Several federal and state reports had concluded that constructing the facility on Emerald Peak presented an unacceptable risk to the red squirrel's survival," a GAO report states. But in July 1988, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion on the proposed telescope's impact on the red squirrel. The opinion included three options: Build the telescopes on another mountain, locate the facility on Mount Graham's more degraded High Peak, or allow the construction of three telescopes on Emerald Peak if the university took more than a dozen actions to mitigate its impact.
UofA picked up the ball and ran with the third option straight to Arizona's congressional delegation. UofA wanted Congress to suspend the National Environmental Policy Act and allow the project to proceed with three telescopes on Emerald Peak.
The delegation, led by Representative Jim Kolbe and senators Dennis DeConcini and John McCain, rammed the provision through Congress in October 1988. No university had ever sought an exemption from NEPA, and the House's most powerful environmentalist, former Arizona Representative Morris Udall, held his nose and voted for the exemption.
Once the law was passed, the university was in the driver's seat. When problems came up, it could rely on McCain and U.S. Forest Service chief Dale Robertson to clear the way.
According to GAO field reports obtained by Silver through public-records requests, McCain and Robertson reached an "understanding" that the Forest Service would do nothing to "stand in the way" of the telescope project.
The McCain-Robertson deal came into force in May 1989, when Coronado Forest officials balked at issuing a road permit to UofA because of a precipitous decline in the red squirrel population over the winter.
But Coronado Forest supervisor Jim Abbott's roadblock was abruptly lifted after he met on May 18, 1989, with McCain, Kolbe and DeConcini. According to the GAO field reports, McCain "read the Forest Service staff the riot act" for considering a move to delay the telescope project. McCain reportedly chastised the agency for dragging its feet and at one point told Abbott that "if he did not cooperate on this project, he would be the shortest-tenured Forest Service supervisor in history."
The meeting concluded with McCain telling Forest Service staffers to make sure his feelings on the matter got back to Robertson. The next day, the Forest Service rejected environmental requests to issue a stay in building the road.