Wildlife photographer Robin Silver fell for the Mount Graham squirrel when they first met. "Photographing any species--and it doesn't have to be an endangered species--you fall in love with what you're taking pictures of," he says. "There's no way you can't. There's no way you can't become part of the creature you're photographing."
Silver, whose images of the embattled squirrel, bald eagles and spotted owls have graced Arizona Highways and other publications, is frantically trying to save the squirrel from a telescope project spearheaded by his own alma mater, the University of Arizona.
But Silver doesn't live in a dream world of little furry creatures in which people don't count. The 37-year-old also works on humans in his other life as a full-time emergency-room physician at St. Joseph's Hospital. You could say he's in the middle of some emergencies right now.
He's beside himself. This sharp-featured person fires off protest letters and keeps the phone lines humming. Last week, he rushed to Washington, D.C., with long-time local environmentalist Bob Witzeman (himself an M.D.) to push the squirrel's case. Silver and others cite numbers and facts and ask, "What about the Endangered Species Act?" (The Mount Graham squirrel is an official member of that club.)
The telescopes' opponents are running out of time. A thirty-day pre-construction monitoring period expires September 14. The squirrel population is dwindling--the recent death of an adult female was especially grim news. Even without construction of roads and 'scopes in their prime habitat, the squirrels may vanish. "The truth is," says Silver, "that they could become extinct if we do nothing."
Against the squirrel-lovers and others who tout the uniqueness of the eastern Arizona mountain are, well, Congress, the Vatican, the UofA, West Germany, and Ohio State University (the latter four want to operate 'scopes on the peak).
Last fall, the Arizona congressional delegation yielded to UofA's impatient demand for emergency intervention and shoved the project through with no public hearings. But there still are hoops to jump through before construction starts in earnest. This battle of technicalities over road widths, acreage and legalese may be the last stand of traditional environmentalists before Earth First!, which literally worships the mountain, barricades the site with human bodies. There seems little doubt that they are willing to do just that.
Silver says he's getting a real taste of the world of lobbyists, editorial writers, big-time university politics and Congress. "Those guys are pros back there," he says of the environmental lobbyists in D.C. "I'm just a meatball trying to give them facts."
This is how someone becomes passionate about squirrels:
Silver is incensed when he thinks about such things as the logging operations on the Kaibab Plateau, north of the Grand Canyon. That beautiful drive along the aspens is deceiving; much of the forest on both sides has been drastically thinned. "We're criticizing Brazil?" says Silver. "We've got absolute deforestation north of the Grand Canyon."
But pretty scenery itself doesn't mean that much to him. He says it's sterile without creatures.
"Endangered species are my specialty now," he says, "and when you start studying and spending time with these animals, it's a pretty incredible experience. I'm spending time with something that no other humans will, because they're probably going to be gone.
"When you're up there with those little red squirrels--they're gorgeous little animals just struggling to survive, not any different than humans."
Pausing from his latest crisis at St. Joe's emergency room, Silver asks, "Why are we not protecting our endangered creatures?"