By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
(Silver's sleuthing in 1991 exposed the fact that although field reports contained references to the McCain-Robertson agreement, the official GAO report presented in 1990 to Congress made no mention of the deal. The GAO report had been requested by McCain and DeConcini.)
Abbott tells New Times his job was never threatened by McCain nor has he ever been pressured to make decisions that unfairly favored the telescope project.
UofA officials say they are pleased to have the support of Congress and claim environmentalists brought the problem on themselves by crying wolf.
"The environmentalists had misused the laws to stop a project with no significant environmental effect," Strittmatter says.
But the bulk of evidence suggests otherwise.
Two years after UofA won its NEPA exemption, Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Spear would appear before former U.S. Representative Gerry Studds' House subcommittee and make a startling statement. Spear testified that he had no biological information that supported building telescopes on Emerald Peak and that he made his decision based on nonbiological factors, including UofA's insistence that Emerald Peak was the only viable site for the observatory.
Spear's admission--that there was no biological foundation in his decision to allow telescopes to be built on Emerald Peak--at first appeared to strike a fatal blow for UofA's project. Studds asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a "biological update" to see if the project should continue.
The Fish and Wildlife Service issued a hastily prepared report on August 1, 1990, that recommended the entire project be reviewed to make sure it was not posing a threat to the squirrel.
But the Fish and Wildlife Service could only recommend that the issue be reconsidered. The Forest Service, which controlled the mountain, objected. The question was then tossed to a Department of Justice attorney, who rejected the Fish and Wildlife Service assessment without issuing a written explanation.
@body:Coronado Forest supervisor Jim Abbott, who was read the "riot act" by McCain in 1989, will determine where the LBT would be built. Abbott has set up an informal committee to review UofA's request and analyze potential impacts of moving the LBT to peak 10,289. He will use the committee's report to help make an administrative decision on UofA's request this month.
What UofA hopes to avoid is a full-blown environmental impact statement. Any formal review would take UofA back to square one, raising questions about the propriety of building any telescopes at all. Abbott declined to discuss whether an environmental impact statement would be necessary.
UofA biologist Peter Warshall says the university and its allies are up to the same old tricks and will rely on Abbott and a compliant Forest Service to clear the way. Warshall said Abbott's informal committee will probably allow UofA to sidestep an environmental impact statement.
"This committee is working outside the law in order to avoid public input and to avoid any possibility that the law will actually be used," Warshall says.
In the wake of the embarrassing discovery that the LBT was sited on the wrong peak, UofA astronomers are brazenly attempting to revise history and shift the blame for the Emerald Peak selection to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency whose field and district biologists opposed construction there.
"They put us down into this area on the basis that putting us together [in a cluster on Emerald Peak] would be more appropriate for the red squirrel," UofA astronomer Neville Woolf says.
According to Woolf, Fish and Wildlife Service biologists "didn't realize that they put us in a place where there is maximum impact on the squirrel." UofA, he says magnanimously, is "giving them a chance to recoup" from their mistake.
"I don't really know what they're talking about," says Fitzpatrick, the Fish and Wildlife field biologist who has been involved in Mount Graham studies from the beginning. UofA and the Forest Service, not Fish and Wildlife, demanded Emerald Peak, she insists.
She is not surprised by UofA's attempt to rewrite history. "Looking back over the last few years, I can only say they have been interesting people to work with," she says.
UofA also is suddenly taking a position that it is deeply concerned about the welfare of its longtime nemesis, the red squirrel. The university is claiming that moving the telescope to the new peak would lessen the impact on the squirrels because the area has fewer and smaller trees than the present site.
"You're helping everything," Woolf says. "You're helping the forest, the astronomers and the squirrel all at the same time."
According to Warshall, it is impossible to tell whether the squirrel would be better off with the new site until biologists independent from UofA's astronomy department review the situation.
"Until the data is made public," says Warshall, "and the public is given three months to go over it carefully and also to do field work, there is no way we can believe them."
Environmentalists claim UofA can remove the telescopes from Mount Graham for less than $2 million and find more suitable sites elsewhere. But the Board of Regents, which has ultimate say over the project, isn't ready to give up yet.