By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
UofA astronomy played a key role in Star Wars. Developing lightweight mirrors--one of UofA's focuses--was an essential component to the scaled-back Strategic Defense Initiative. University officials have seen that funding dry up with the end of the Cold War, so without the Large Binocular Telescope and its $10 million in mirror contract orders, there is fear that the university's $24 million mirror lab will also collapse.
University officials claim the key to the future of UofA's astronomy department rests atop Mount Graham. "Mount Graham is the only way ground-based astronomy will advance in the state at the cutting-edge level," says Peter Strittmatter, director of Steward Observatory.
The university's eagerness to protect the astronomy department's cash flow, and remain on the "cutting edge" of science, has led to cutting corners on a colossal scale. Undercover cops busting students is only the most recent example of UofA's ruthlessness.
Traditional environmental groups, such as the Audubon Society, are still seething because UofA convinced Congress in 1988 to exempt the telescope project from the National Environmental Policy Act. The political arm-twisting began after it became clear that the telescopes would jeopardize survival of the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel, a species that exists nowhere else. UofA spent $1 million lobbying for the exemption.
The single common thread running through every chapter of the telescope-development chronology is the university's obsession to press forward--civil liberties, environmental laws and religious freedoms be damned.
"Basically, the university is a pariah," says Peter Warshall, a UofA biologist who conducted a 1985 environmental impact study on Mount Graham.
"It has done everything possible to avoid law, rather than following it," says Warshall, who works at UofA's Office for Arid Land Studies. "There is no controversy to that. Rather than . . . trying to embrace the law, they have, you might say, taken the low road."
Warshall, a Fullbright scholar, knows well the intricate footwork UofA employed to sidestep environmental laws, which, properly enforced, would have barred telescopes from Mount Graham. It was Warshall's work that led to the designation of the Mount Graham red squirrel as an endangered species.
Even Congress' own watchdog, the General Accounting Office, has blasted the university for deceiving federal agencies. The GAO wrote to one congressman in 1990, "We believe information presented by the University is incomplete and misleading."
For a decade, UofA has steamrolled all opposition that threatens its cluster of telescopes atop Mount Graham. Its bullheaded effort has alienated other top astronomers who are angry that the university so blatantly placed its political and financial agenda ahead of solid science.
In the view of Roger Lynds, a nationally respected astronomer with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the Mount Graham project is all about "self-aggrandizement. . . . It's got nothing to do with science, technology and truth or the best use of taxpayers' money."
@body:The battle for Mount Graham began quietly enough in 1983 when Congress dropped part of Mount Graham out of a Wilderness Study Area and designated its top 3,500 acres as an astrophysical research area. UofA saw Mount Graham as a close, relatively inexpensive site to build a major observatory that would assure the university's international prominence in astronomy.
A year later, UofA asked Coronado National Forest for permission to build 18 telescopes scattered across Mount Graham on three peaks--Emerald Peak, Hawk Peak and High Peak.
Federal and state field biologists opposed development on the peaks because the area had been virtually untouched by man for 10,000 years. Mount Graham contained a "nearly pristine relic forest and meadow habitats that had been isolated through both time and space," according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The U.S. Forest Service sought to avert a full-scale war by tentatively approving the construction of five telescopes--not 18--at High Peak, an area of less environmental significance, in 1986. UofA was outraged over the plan, saying five telescopes weren't enough to make the project financially viable.
With the battle lines becoming clearly drawn--telescopes versus forest--all that was needed was a defining moment for the troops to start firing. It came in June 1987 when federal biologists determined that the red squirrel, an eight-ounce rodent once thought extinct, was in fact only threatened with extinction. For UofA, this was the worst possible outcome; it triggered the nation's toughest environmental law, the Endangered Species Act.
The sniping escalated when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the Mount Graham red squirrel on the endangered species list. While UofA appealed to a sympathetic Arizona congressional delegation, environmentalists launched a grassroots counteroffensive in Arizona, garnering the support of 35 environmental organizations and the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
UofA told Congress it had lined up an impressive list of partners to build several telescopes on Mount Graham. UofA and Germany wanted to build a $7 million radiotelescope, and UofA and the Vatican were prepared to build a small, $3 million optical telescope. The backbone of the project, however, was a joint effort headed by UofA and involving Ohio State University and Italy's Arcetri Observatory: to build the world's largest optical telescope--the $60 million Large Binocular Telescope.
Although Congress approved construction of these telescopes on Emerald Peak while waiving provisions of a key environmental law, the project is far from a done deal. While the two small telescopes are nearing completion, the LBT, if it is built at all, may end up just being a single mirror telescope because of lack of funding.