By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Atop Mount Graham inside the Columbine Visitor Center on a brisk Saturday morning, a half-dozen Department of Public Safety officers stood in a circle. They were discussing the merits of shining their shoes.
"The colonel says we can wear Reeboks if we can get a shine on them," one officer said to his companions, who seemed delighted at the prospect of wearing comfortable shoes.
Outside, more police lingered near their white Ford sedans, watching workers erect a tent and cook food in preparation for a dedication, later that afternoon, of two of the three telescopes planned to be built on the mountain's Emerald Peak.
The police were making sure the dedication ceremony went smoothly and $10 million of telescopes built by the Vatican, the University of Arizona and Germany's Max Planc Institute remained safe. Everyone knew there was strong opposition to the construction of the telescopes on Mount Graham, which some Native Americans consider sacred. Many environmentalists, meanwhile, see that construction as an affront to the nation's environmental laws.
The police, however, apparently had no idea that the opposition would materialize in some genuinely strange forms.
At least 100 officers from DPS, the Graham County Sheriff's Department, the Forest Service and the University of Arizona were on hand as the first of 400 invited guests slowly began the long ascent of Arizona's steepest mountain, driving up the 30-mile-long Swift Trail toward the dedication area.
While the police chatted about shoes, several dozen staunch opponents to the telescope project moved quietly through the woods. Weeks of planning and days and nights of field work were about to be put into action. "We intend to close the road," a member of Earth First! said.
The first delaying tactic came off without a hitch. Two activists placed U-locks, of the type used to secure bicycles, around their necks and attached themselves to a cattle guard in the road near the base of the mountain. The motorcade of astronomers, UofA administrators, Vatican officials and their supporters, including guests from Italy and Germany, ground to a halt while a hacksaw was rounded up. It wouldn't be the first delay of the morning.
An hour later, as the motorcade approached the top of the mountain, an activist gave a hoot. Seconds later, four teams swung into action.
Two groups dragged rocks, logs and other debris into the road. Between these points, a third team closed the road's only gate, which the police had failed to monitor. Moments later, 21-year-old Wendy Young secured her neck to the gate with three U-locks.
"We are here to defend ancient wilderness and endangered species," she said. "Especially when those who are building the project are breaking environmental laws."
At the same time, 150 yards up the road, the fourth team was erecting a 35-foot-tall log tripod in the middle of the road. It took 15 minutes to lash together the three logs, hoist them into the air and secure the base of each log in the ground. The team then pulled Diana "Dee" Valenzuela to the top of the tripod, where she tied herself to the posts and began singing songs.
During the entire operation, no police were seen. When they finally arrived, they were dumfounded.
"This is ingenuity. That's good. I like that," said Graham County Sheriff Richard Mack, who has a reputation of remaining calm when dealing with protesters.
For the next two-and-one-half hours, police tried to devise a way to get Valenzuela down from the tripod, a form of physical protest developed several years ago by Malaysian indigenous people opposed to the logging of rain forests. At least two Malaysian protesters have been killed when officials pulled such tripods down, Earth First! members say. The protesters told police the only safe way to get Valenzuela down was with a cherry picker. Activists hoped it would take hours to round up such a machine, forcing cancellation of the dedication.
As the police wondered what to do, nerves began to fray. The weird and sophisticated protests against the telescope project proved too much for Fred Allison, a public relations man with the Tucson Catholic Diocese. The project includes a $2 million Vatican observatory.
Allison, who acknowledges his bitterness toward the protesters, occasionally calling them "assholes," began looking for opportunities to have opponents of the project arrested. His church, which once persecuted Copernicus, Brahe and Galileo for studying the heavens, now hopes the telescope atop Mount Graham will help find creatures on yet-to-be-discovered planets, who can then be brought into the Catholic fold.
In one instance, Allison asked police to arrest William Crosby, whose crime consisted of accidentally bumping his elbow into Allison while running down the road trying to videotape Valenzuela in the tripod. The police obliged, and Crosby was charged with assault. Allison declined to comment Monday.
As morning turned to afternoon and the backup of vehicles stretched a quarter-mile down the dusty road, police decided to tie the poles of the tripod together and then cut a couple feet off each leg, one at a time, until Valenzuela could be reached from the ground.
"Bring on the chain saw," Mack yelled.
The operation was risky; lowering the logs one at a time would place uneven stress on the tripod, increasing the risk that one pole would snap. If the tripod collapsed, Valenzuela faced serious injury.