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Arizona Astrophysical Telescope Program : Squirrels Place Cloud Over Project

United Press International

During the final days before the congressional recess, two Arizona senators tried to introduce legislation to create an astrophysical preserve on Mt. Graham, home of an endangered species of squirrel.

The legislation sponsored by John McCain, a Republican, and Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat, failed, but they plan to try again when Congress reconvenes.

The proposal has pitted sky-gazers against wildlife proponents in argument over which--stars or squirrels, national environmental preservation efforts or exploration of the cosmos--will take precedence under the clear skies at Mt. Graham.

Two Laws Cited

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Conservationists argue that the legislation would impede local preservation activities that come under the jurisdiction of the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.

“The local (Arizona) delegation is trying to circumvent two laws because a special interest group is in a hurry,” said Tice Supplee, game branch supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “The process should be left alone.”

The Steward Observatory of the University of Arizona has wanted to make Mt. Graham home for a new generation of telescopes, including the $125-million National New Technology Telescope (NNTT), the 11.3-meter binocular Columbus Project and the 10-meter telescope funded in part by the Max Planck Institute in West Germany. The NNTT site has since been moved to Hawaii, and the university fears that other telescopes may follow.

Doesn’t Want Delay

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“One telescope has already been lost because of the delay in site availability,” Laurel L. Wilkening, vice president for research at the University of Arizona, stated in a July letter to the U.S. Forest Service. “We cannot now pursue any additional processes that would require further delay.”

Mt. Graham is also home to the remaining 200 Mt. Graham red squirrels, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Also, according to Randall A. Smith, forest wildlife biologist with the Coronado National Forest, the mountain is a unique place, with plants and animals isolated there since the last Ice Age. The region supports the densest population of black bears in the Southwest.

“The worst thing going for this species (the squirrel) is that it is one population located on one mountain in the world,” said Smith. Red squirrels are common throughout North America, but this subspecies is very rare. “Whenever you’re dealing with an endangered species, especially where there’s just one population, you’re facing a greater threat.” The species had been reported extinct once before.

Uses Fir Canopy

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The red squirrel depends on mature spruce-fir or Douglas fir forest for food and refuge. The squirrel must store conifer cones as food to get through the winter and relies on the dense canopy to keep its caches, or middens, dark, damp and cool. Otherwise, the cones dry and split, and the seeds are lost.

Based on active midden sites, scientists estimate that the squirrel population has declined from about 328 in 1986 to 215 in 1988. Loss of habitat from logging, road-building and fire and competition from an introduced species, the Albert or tassel-eared squirrel, are blamed for the population’s decline, although not enough data has been gathered to document what may be wide fluctuations in squirrel numbers.

“We could be pushing the edge of extinction,” said Smith.

It is estimated that the population must be 150 to 300 for the squirrels to survive, he said, “so we’re very concerned about additional negative impacts.”

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Warns About Proposal

In July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an opinion that the university’s request for seven telescopes, to be built on two peaks, was taking too big a chance on the squirrel’s survival.

The agency instead proposed three alternatives for the university to consider. Two options allowed a smaller observatory, with future expansion possible, if public access to the squirrel’s most important habitat were cut off.

The university accepted one option--with modifications--and in a press conference July 22 insisted that the Forest Service make a final decision by September so that construction would not be delayed any longer.

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According to Smith, the Forest Service could not meet that deadline in part because the proposal was different enough to require opportunity for the public to comment on the proposal.

Asks Congress for Help

During the first week in August, the university went to the Arizona delegation to ask that Congress take the matter out of the Forest Service’s hands.

“If the public wants that opportunity for input, then all they will be doing is dancing on the telescopes’ graves,” John Kelly, legislative assistant for Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), said in an interview. The delegation will attempt to pass legislation before the end of this session of Congress so that construction can begin immediately.

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“We’re very disappointed,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “They are taking the final decision away from the Forest Service.”

However, on Aug. 9 Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials met with the Arizona delegation to work out issues to be addressed in the proposed legislation.

The idea that some telescopes might be put elsewhere contradicts previous statements by the university about the necessity of using Mt. Graham for astrophysical research.

‘They Have to Be There’

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“We’re not going to put telescopes on those sites that we can put somewhere else. They have to be there,” J. T. Williams, special assistant to the vice president for research and chairman of the Mt. Graham Task Force at the University of Arizona, said in a telephone interview.

The reasons are that the location, because there are clear skies with no pollution, is considered the best in the continental United States for celestial viewing. In addition, it’s close to the university and its resources.

A local coalition of wildlife and conservation agencies has consistently opposed the building of telescopes, but now national organizations have begun to take notice.

“It is becoming more significant nationally,” John P. Ernst, lobbyist for the National Wildlife Federation, said in a telephone interview. “It becomes a concern to us if someone tries to override the Endangered Species Act.”

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