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.

Valenzuela, a dark-haired mother of two, clutched the top of the tripod as the officer's saw cut through the pole. Activists yelled a famous 1968 slogan--The whole world is watching--while telescope supporters watched in bemusement and listened to the University of Arizona football game on the radio. After the first support was cut, three policemen slowly lowered the shortened pole to the ground.

Rattled, Valenzuela said she was coming down.
But she didn't move quickly enough for several officers involved in the operation, including the chain-saw operator, who stood near the second support post, revving his saw.

Valenzuela, an Apache who lives in Silver City, New Mexico, changed her mind.
"Drop another one down," she yelled. "I'm not coming down."
The process continued, one leg at a time, for another 15 minutes. Finally, the tip of the tripod was low enough that two officers could reach the protester by standing in the raised scoop of a front-end loader. Valenzuela, without resisting, was removed from the tripod and officers quickly tipped what had become a 20-foot-high structure. One of the poles snapped when it hit the ground.

With the last blockade removed, the motorcade continued up the mountain to Columbine for the dedication ceremony. There, more environmental activists, along with a handful of Native Americans that included representatives of the American Indian Movement and San Carlos Apaches, began playing drums, singing songs and explaining their opposition to the project to astronomy supporters--who were standing in line for a barbecue lunch.

"The creator doesn't need a peeping Tom like all of you people," said Vernon Foster, director of the Arizona AIM chapter.

The drumming and chanting provided a steady backdrop for the dedication ceremony, which finally began around 3 p.m., three hours late. The protesters would have been delighted to hear the first words out of Dr. George V. Coyne, a Jesuit priest and head of the Vatican Observatory.

"When I come to a place like this, I always ask myself, 'What are we doing here?'" he said, joking about the remoteness of Mount Graham. The site's seclusion and, until recently, unspoiled vistas have been at the focus of protesting environmentalists and those Native Americans who consider the mountain sacred. The area is home to the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel. Coyne, who once headed the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, was accompanied by an authentic San Carlos Apache on the dedication platform as the drumming and chanting intensified. Many San Carlos Apaches oppose the telescope project, contending that the mountain is a sacred site and was once part of their aboriginal homeland.

"As a sign of our profound desire for peace, Buck Kitcheyan, former tribal chairman of the San Carlos Apaches, will recite the inscription on the dedication plaque in Apache," Coyne said.

Kitcheyan, who staunchly opposed the project when he was tribal chairman, has since changed his mind. The former chairman slowly read the inscription in Apache, finishing with the line: "May whoever searches here night and day the far reaches of space use it joyfully with the help of God."

Kitcheyan returned to his seat behind the podium looking anything but joyful. A frown was branded on his stony face. His thumb pressed against each finger in his right hand, over and over. Perhaps he was worried about his participation in a ceremony dedicating a project that a dozen Apache medicine men oppose.

Or maybe it was the federal indictment that came down last week in U.S. District Court in Tucson, charging him with embezzling funds from the Apache tribe. That indictment, in turn, could have revived memories of his conviction last year in Apache Tribal Court on 14 counts of embezzlement.

With the Vatican telescope fully blessed by a disgraced tribal leader, the ceremony turned to Germany's $8 million radio telescope.

Dr. Wolfgang Hasenclever of the Max Planc Institute praised UofA "for the way you people in your country take things into your own hands," an apparent reference to the university's success in its $1 million lobbying effort before Congress. That lobbying helped exempt the telescope project from the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Max Planc Institute is so pleased with the UofA that it is considering expanding its investment on Mount Graham to become a desperately needed fourth partner in the UofA's Large Binocular Telescope. Two major German universities in Heidelberg and in Munich also are considering joining Max Planc in the LBT, an astronomer close to the project says.

The dedication Saturday christened the smallest two telescopes planned for the mountain's Emerald Peak. The $60 million Large Binocular Telescope is still on the drawing boards and short of funds.

So far, the UofA and the Arcetri Observatory in Italy have committed $15 million each to the LBT, which would be one of the largest optical telescopes in the world. Tucson-based Research Corporation, a foundation supporting scientific research, has committed up to $7.5 million.

Obtaining additional funding is crucial not only to the LBT, but to the operation of the two telescopes dedicated Saturday. The LBT is expected to provide the lion's share of the operating funds for the remote mountain, where snow removal costs more than $150,000 each winter and water and fuel to power generators must be trucked up the mountain.

The dedication ceremonies concluded as the sun's strength began to ebb and the earth's chill grew. Geri Kitcheyan, wife of the indicted former tribal leader, leaned over to Father Coyne and summed up the feelings of the telescope supporters. "I feel sorry for the protesters. They live in the Dark Ages," she said.

"Yes, they live in the Dark Ages," Coyne agreed.
And the drums kept on beating.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >