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War Rages Over Red Squirrel Home : Environment: A plan to build telescopes on the rodent’s mountain has involved special legislation, pleas from the Pope and eco-sabotage.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Looming 10,700 feet above the Arizona sands, this mountain is an ecological island, a place where an exotic array of plants and wildlife--cut off from other mountain ranges by miles of bone-dry desert--have evolved in isolation since the last Ice Age.

Now the mountain’s wooded summit is the subject of a ferocious tug-of-war between backers of a construction project and biologists who fear that the work will push an endangered red squirrel to extinction.

This is no classic stop-the-bulldozers battle. The alleged plunderers are astronomers who want to use Mt. Graham as a perch from which to peer at the darkest corners of the universe. And they have as an ally Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., the man responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act.

“Nobody’s told me the difference between a red squirrel, a black one or a brown one,” Lujan told a National Park Foundation banquet in Colorado on Thursday. “Do we have to save every subspecies?”

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Led by the University of Arizona, a partnership involving such heavyweights as the Smithsonian Institution and the Vatican plans to build a $200-million observatory atop Mt. Graham. The international venture would include the world’s most powerful and sophisticated land-based telescopes--a new generation of instruments that boosters say will help launch the next era in astronomy.

The mountain’s height and location far from city lights make it a perfect place for stargazing. But astronomers want to plunk their seven scopes in a dense forest that harbors the last living Mt. Graham red squirrels, a subspecies of small, quiet rodents that may number as few as 100.

The result is one of the nastiest environmental battles in Arizona’s history, a fight that has involved Congress, pleas for intervention from the Pope, sabotage by self-described “scope-busters"--even a death threat to a university professor.

“Our opponents have declared jihad on us--holy war--and their goal is to delay this thing so long that it dies,” said astronomer Roger Angel, director of the university laboratory that is creating mirrors for the project’s telescopes. “It’s like international terrorism.”

“Mt. Graham’s fate is not just an Arizona issue,” countered Phoenix lawyer Charles Babbitt, president of the Maricopa County Audubon Society. “The university has thrown science and biology overboard and used money, lobbying and politics to try to ram this project through. If they can do that on this mountaintop, it can happen anywhere.”

Recently, the fight took a surprising new turn when two biologists who work for the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service said in court depositions that they were ordered by superiors to prepare reports concluding that telescopes and squirrels could coexist on Mt. Graham.

The testimony has triggered an investigation by the General Accounting Office and prompted a federal judge in Tuscon to grant a temporary injunction barring further work on the project.

Because Congress relied on the biologists’ reports in granting the university special permission to build in squirrel habitat before environmental reviews were complete, the GAO’s findings could force a reconsideration of the issue.

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The injunction was a crushing blow for university astronomers, who were hoping to break ground this spring. Plans for the observatory date to 1980, when the university began work on a breed of new mega-scopes, which use giant mirrors that enable astronomers to see in detail celestial objects that today’s telescopes display as mere pinpricks of light.

These instruments work in concert with the Hubble Space Telescope launched last month: The Hubble can detect objects so small they have never been spotted, but the huge mirrors on the ground-based scopes provide the illumination needed to carefully study the discoveries.

Among the partners enlisted by the university were the Smithsonian, the Max Planck Institute of West Germany and the Vatican Observatory. Pope Leo XIII founded the observatory in 1891, in part to answer critics who recall the Holy See’s persecution of Galileo for his insistence that Earth revolved around the sun.

Other allies include three small farming communities near the mountain--Safford, Thatcher and Pima. The city councils have endorsed the observatory and spent $500,000 on welcoming gestures like the installation of low-sodium lighting, help with construction of a road to the summit and plans for an airport expansion.

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Critics, however, argue that neither an economic boost for Graham County nor a prestigious astronomical observatory for Arizona are important enough reasons to jeopardize the mountain’s red squirrel.

Discovered in the 1890s, the animal is one of 25 subspecies of red squirrels and is smaller and less chatty than its fellow rodents. The Mt. Graham critter also has a distinctive chromosome and may, some biologists suspect, have been the source population for all the red squirrels in the Rocky Mountains.

Through the years, the Mt. Graham squirrel has declined, mostly through piecemeal losses of habitat to logging and construction of roads and summer cabins. The last three years have been particularly grim, because a lack of rainfall has cut the crop of cones upon which squirrels rely for food.

In 1987, the squirrel was placed on the nation’s list of endangered species. Although university officials fought the listing, they now concede the animal’s situation is precarious.

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But they also maintain their seven-scope project poses no threat to the squirrel. Indeed, one pro-telescope biology professor argues that the university could in fact become the squirrel’s saviour because of the tree-planting and other mitigating measures the school must take in order to build on the mountain.

“I predict a positive effect,” said Conrad Istock, chairman of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department. “We’ve removed the threat of logging from the mountain and are going to be reforesting 80 acres that will, in the long-term, be beneficial to the squirrel. That’s a lot of trees.”

Critics--who include Earth First! activists, Apache Indians who view the mountain as sacred, and even hunting and sportfishing groups--call such logic nonsense.

“That’s like telling a dying patient on a hospital gurney that you’ll give him a pint of blood next week but first you’re going to have to take a gallon,” said biologist Tom Waddell, Mt. Graham wildlife manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Well, what we’ve got here is a patient who may not make it to next week.”

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While only 26 acres of forest would be cleared to make room for the seven telescopes, Waddell said the university has picked the flat, dense spruce fir thickets historically most favored by the squirrel. And, in addition to the 26 acres, Waddell said some surrounding habitat will be degraded because a hole in the forest canopy exposes the squirrels’ food caches to sunlight. Light and warmth can dry up the seeds on which the rodents feed.

“No one knows the squirrel’s extinction threshhold, but we do know that anything below 500 is bad news,” biologist Warshall said. “When you have a situation like that, you don’t start cutting down trees.”

The controversy escalated dramatically when the university did what critics bitterly describe as an “end run” around the nation’s two primary environmental protection laws--the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

In 1988, Congress attached an unusual rider to a conservation bill that allowed the university to proceed with construction of three telescopes without finalizing environmental reviews. Arizona’s entire congressional delegation--including environmental champion Rep. Morris K. Udall--supported the legislation.

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Conservationists viewed the legislative move as a dangerous precedent, and soon national environmental groups such as Defenders of Wildlife and the Audubon Society had joined the fight.

“When the nation’s two most sacred environmental laws get flushed down the tubes in the state of Arizona, that gets people’s attention,” said Bob Witzeman, a Phoenix conservationist and Audubon Society leader. “It galvanized everybody.”

Last year, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund sued the U.S. Forest Service on behalf of 10 organizations, and since then, the battle has heated up.

Earth First! activists have chained themselves to grading equipment in protest of the university’s construction of a road to the observatory site. A dead squirrel was sent to the home of the observatory project’s director, and Istock, the pro-scope biologist, was even mailed a death threat.

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Still, until last month, the university’s optimism about the project was on the rise. Then U.S. District Judge Alfredo C. Marquez granted a 120-day injunction, ruling that the federal biologists’ startling depositions raise “some question” about the credibility of their reports.

In the depositions, biologists Sam Spiller and Lesley Ann Fitzpatrick say they were directed by supervisors to reverse an earlier opinion and conclude that telescopes would not jeopardize the squirrel’s continued existence.

“We needed much more information on the squirrel and its habitat before a decision to site the project should have been made,” Fitzpatrick said in the deposition. Her orders, she said, were to prepare a report “allowing development in accordance with the project proposed.”

University officials have appealed the injunction to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and a ruling is expected soon. Meanwhile, some members of the Arizona congressional delegation say they may reopen the issue if the GAO’s report reveals any impropriety.

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While they await a verdict, the combatants continue their angry sparring. There is no talk of compromise.

“There is so much at stake here for scientific research . . . and all we want are eight acres (for the first three telescopes) out of the entire mountain,” Angel said.

Such statements, the university’s detractors respond, reflect the astronomers’ hubris.

“They can put those telescopes anywhere,” said Waddell of the Game and Fish Department. “But we can’t move the squirrels. We can’t move the forest. So we’re not gonna’ give up.”

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