By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
This was no small change. UofA exerted tremendous pressure on federal wildlife managers and Congress in 1988 to win approval to build the telescopes on Emerald Peak, in the heart of prime habitat for the red squirrel. Now the university wants to relocate the massive telescope to a one-acre site one-half mile to the west known simply as peak 10,298.
To justify the move, the university is taking an unusual tack. UofA astronomer Strittmatter now says there "is no such thing as Emerald Peak" because such a name doesn't appear on topographic maps. He says when Congress said UofA could build three telescopes on "Emerald Peak," the lawmakers really meant that telescopes could be built anywhere along a ridge running between 10,298 and the "nominal site," which is Strittmatter's new euphemism for Emerald Peak.
Strittmatter's convoluted explanation is meant to obfuscate the embarrassing fact that UofA astronomers now concede they relied on faulty data and "severely underestimated" the distortion caused by the forest when they determined in 1988 that Emerald Peak was the best site.
But rather than saying anything when it became clear two years later that Emerald Peak was not the best location for the LBT, UofA kept the information secret until road construction and site-clearing for the other two small telescopes were complete.
"They kept it secret so they could establish a beachhead on the mountain," says Bob Witzeman, a Maricopa Audubon Society member who has steadily fought the project.
UofA astronomer Woolf, who conducted the study that indicated Emerald Peak was the best site, blames bureaucratic delays for the two-year lag in disclosure of problems on Emerald Peak. But Strittmatter told GAO investigators as early as June 1990 that the university was "not firm on Emerald Peak" and that peak 10,298 "is our best guess now" for the location of the LBT, according to the transcript of a GAO interview with Strittmatter.
The error came as no surprise to some astronomers familiar with the mountain. Michael Merrill of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory says it was obvious years ago that the forest was ill-suited for a large optical telescope.
Merrill conducted studies on Mount Graham in the mid-1980s as part of a project to determine how an inland mountain compared with the best U.S. viewing site at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. While Mount Graham was considered an excellent site, Mauna Kea was far superior for a proposed 15-meter optical telescope. During the studies, Merrill says it became clear that the forest site would present problems.
"One of the conclusions we had come to was that the idea of being inside a forest in a clearing was not a good idea," Merrill says.
The problem has to do with the way warm and cool air mix in a mountaintop forest. Merrill says it appeared that a turbulent layer of warm and cold air forms just above treetops on Mount Graham, causing visual distortion that could affect a high-powered optical telescope such as the LBT.
Even Strittmatter now says it is fairly obvious that 10,298 is a better site than Emerald Peak. Asked why UofA wants to move the telescope, Strittmatter smiles and points out on a map that 10,298 was the westernmost point on a long ridge.
"It's the first place where the wind strikes the mountain, so it hits it cleanly," Strittmatter says, meaning a reduction of warm and cold mix.
The only way to overcome the treetop turbulence at Emerald Peak is to build a structure that would tower over the 60-foot-tall trees. A UofA report indicates the telescope would have to be housed in a 240-foot-tall structure for the viewing to be comparable to sites where there were fewer and shorter trees. The cost of building such a structure is prohibitive, hence UofA's request to move to 10,298.
Environmentalists have seized on the siting blunder and plan a campaign to prevent UofA from moving the LBT. Moving the telescope would open up another undisturbed area in the forest, further fragmenting the squirrel's habitat. It also opens the potential for UofA to request other isolated locations for four more planned telescopes.
"It's a guaranteed lawsuit if the Forest Service allows them to move," says Silver.
If UofA can't move the telescope to 10,298, it faces a dilemma. It must either build a much taller, more costly telescope or stay at Emerald Peak with the currently designed building, settling for an inferior location for the university's "world-class" telescope.
"They are in a very difficult position," Merrill says.
@body:While UofA insists all is well with the project, there are signs of internal stress fractures. Although two small telescopes are nearing completion, opponents believe the project will collapse unless UofA is successful in building the $60 million (1989 dollars) LBT.
The LBT would incorporate the latest mirror technology being developed by UofA's mirror lab. Housed beneath the western grandstand of UofA's football stadium, the mirror lab, which was once funded largely by the Air Force Weapons Laboratory and National Science Foundation, will probably go under unless the LBT is built. One indication of the lab's cash-flow problems emerged when it borrowed, and failed to repay, $5 million from the university's building fund.