MT. Graham Site

Mt. Graham: Non-Controversy of the Decade

The Mt. Graham International Observatory currently consists of two active telescopes, both finished in late 1993 to early 1994.

The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) (also known as the Lennon Telescope) is an optical observatory with a 3.5 meter primary mirror. It has a somewhat unusual design, with a focal length equal to the diameter of it's primary mirror. This makes it an extremely "fast" telescope. It has tested out very well, and is currently used by Vatican and Steward Observatory astronomers.

The Heinrich Hertz Sub-Millimeter Telescope, or SMT, is another leading-edge design. It is designed to operate at short radio wavelengths, a spectral regime that has not been greatly explored. It is the finest telescope of its kind in the world, with a large 10 meter radio dish. This telescope should yield outstanding results in the areas of star formation and the dynamics of cold interstellar clouds when its engineering phases are completed.

Nevertheless, the primary purpose of the Mt. Graham International Observatory has yet to be completed.

Mt. Graham was selected in the early 1980's as the best spot in the continental United States to place a new optical telescope. Years of analysis were done, in every area: geographical, meteological, biological, environmental, political.

Mt. Graham was the one, with significant advantages over the other contenders.

Congress approved the land and funds for Mt. Graham. Because of the special environmental concerns of the area (the red squirrel, protected by the Endangered Species Act, is a sub-species of the common squirrel) it was agreed the U.S. Forest Service would oversee the construction and management of the site.

In 1988, Congress approved the UA's plan for three telescopes: the VATT, the SMT, and the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT).

The LBT would take full advantages of technology developed by Roger Angel's Mirror Lab (here at the UA).

It would feature two 8.4 meter diameter spin-cast honeycomb glass mirrors, making it the world's largest telescope, and the largest telescope currently planned.

Using other technology developed at the UA, it would be a "fast" telescope that could be housed in a structure not much bigger than the telescope itself.

Palomar, which was the world's largest telescope for about 40 years, has a 5 meter primary, yet is housed in a massive dome that dwarfs the actual telescope.

The Soviets built a telescope larger than Palomar, but it is situated in an area of such poor weather, that it is little more than a popular monument to a grand era of Russian science.

Currently, the world's finest telescopes are the Keck I and Keck II atop Manua Kea, Hawaii. These are both segmented mirror scopes: they use 36 little mirrors which are computer driven to approximate a 10 meter diameter primary mirror.

However, solid mirrors perform better than segmented mirrors, and Steward Observatory had discovered how to make solid mirrors much better, cheaper, and faster than had ever been done before.

Also, the twin 8.4 meter mirrors of the LBT would operate much better synchronously than the Keck I and Keck II, and would give the LBT a significant advantage in power, truly making it the world's most powerful telescope.

Furthermore, the Kecks are owned by private institutions (USC and Caltech) which monopolize time on them, restricting access to only their astronomers.

The LBT would be a world-class instrument for the astronomers of the world.

If the LBT is ever constructed, it will be a Palomar for the next century.

Of course, Mt. Graham, is highly valuable to those other than astronomers; obviously this is the basis of the controversy.

Unfortunately, Mt. Graham has been falsely portrayed as a symbol of our culture's attack on the environment and native peoples.

People have been duped and disinformed: they put that "No Scopes" sticker on the back of their cars alongside the "Save the Whales" sticker and think the two go hand in hand. They see Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam burn a UA sweatshirt onstage in Phoenix, and their minds have been made up, without reviewing the reality.

The reality is this: Mt. Graham is the biggest non-controversy of our times.

I've outlined in the table what I believe the major viewpoints are; what we are "fighting for." Please understand that these are the subjective viewpoints; what each side believes to be correct. We have to make up our minds as to who is correct; what the objective reality is.

If we want to determine who is really right in this supposed controversy, we need to figure out what arguments are based in reality.

We can discard the symbolic values because they have little relation to reality--they just echo the arguments made.

So let us look at the real values--those that have a basis in physical experience and physical reality.

First of all, the Native American perceives Mt. Graham to be a important spiritual body--a source of power/guidance, in short, a major component of their cosmology.

Now, does an observatory on this body diminish its power, its importance, its relevance now and in the future for the San Carlos Apache? Of course, only they can provide that answer. But it is a fact that the majority of the San Carlos Apache do not perceive the observatory to be such a threat. In fact, Steward Observatory has brought many native americans to the contruction site, and discovered that most did not have a problem with it--the scopes are a mile from the actual summit from which the spirits emanate. The tribal council adapted a neutral stance on the telescope project. To their religious leaders, it may be more of a symbolic blow, after all, the UA originally made the horrible mistake of calling the LBT "The Columbus Project" and the whole thing is reminiscent of Moslem and Jewish mosques sharing space in Jerusalem--both sides are right and have to compromise.

The mountain will have a quiet future--in contrast to its history of being extensively logged, roads and radio tours built on it, all prior to the university's involvement.

Now we turn to those values recognized by our legal system: the economic and environmental real values. It has been determined by years of extensive studies that the Mt. Graham observatory has a negligible effect on its environment. It is hard to understand how it could have a significant effect, after all, it occupies only about one ten-thousandth of the area on top of the mountain, will be staffed by only several people at a time, and no further construction beyond the original plan is permitted or contemplated, ever!

The squirrel population has actually increased over the past several years (this depends on factors unrelated to the construction). More trees have been re-planted than were removed to build the road and the telescope sites. The UA has cooperated with if not extended upon all environmental guidelines.

Let us make no mistake: an observatory is benign. This is not an oil-rig; the UA is not Exxon. Science is not the enemy. I would not be surprised if I were to learn that many astronomers consider themselves pro-environment; after all, they know what's going on.

Unfortunately, the debate has been dictated by a bunch of hot-heads, unwilling to back down when they sense the opportunity to give a little of what they get--to push a big institution around. And that is just what has happened.

The 9th Circuit Court reversed several earlier decisions, and stated that the U.S. Forest Service improperly authorized the UA to build the LBT on site 10477 because a conceptual design study of the 1988 legislation placed the LBT at site RPA3 (180 degrees from site 10477 and the same distance from the road). The Forest Service (endorsed by the Fish and Wildlife Service) had determined that site 10477 had no active squirrel middens, while there were several near site RPA3. Also, Steward Observatory had determined that the general atmospheric conditions at site 10477 were 3 to 5 percent better. The UA, on the authorization of the Forest Service, began to clear the (less than two) acres that would be needed for the scope (environmental studies were done of course. The UA has employs 6 biologists full-time to stay fully aware of the biological status of the mountain).

The court was essentially nit-picking and swayed by radical environmentalist rhetoric: it's ruling said that more studies should have been done before the Forest Service told UA to build on site 10477. According to Jerry Slagle, the deputy director of Steward Observatory, and manager of the LBT project, the UA has the option of returning to site RPA3 and building there. Essentially, the environmentalists would have forced the UA to the site potentially more damaging to the squirrel population! The UA does not want to do this. So it will literally take an act of Congress (to clarify an act of Congress). This is where Jim Kolbe (R-Arizona) has come in, and stated his intention to submit legislation that will clarify the LBT objective. Hopefully, this will be done soon and allow the UA to complete the Mt. Graham International Observatory.

I feel that Mt. Graham can retain its real value for all groups. It will be of undiminished spiritual importance to the Apache. Its biosystem will remain unharmed. It will be great boon to the local economy. It will be an incredible source of knowledge about the creation and structure of our universe. I think that most Tucsonans and most UA students would agree that it can be all these things: otherwise, they would not have overwhelmingly supported it in polls.

It is hard to quantify the benefits of abstract scientific knowledge. Exploring our universe is of fundamental importance. Mt. Graham was chosen because it is where we need to go to continue our cosmological explorations. We need to keep our sense of wonder alive. This is done not only by studying the stars and galaxies, but also by learning about the earth and its species, by experiencing natural beauty, by experiencing our spiritual capabilities. Mt. Graham will remain a focal point in each of these areas.

Guy McArthur