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Can Squirrels Survive The Harvard--Smithsonian Observatory Plan?

The Battle for Mt. Graham

By Michele F. Forman

In Arizona, there is a pristine peak called Mt. Graham that many astronomers, including some at Harvard, think would make an ideal site for high-powered telescopes.

There is only one hitch--about 132 red squirrels.

Mt. Graham is home to an endangered subspecies of squirrel--Tamiasciurus hudsonicus grahamensis--the Mt. Graham Red Squirrel. Conservationists say construction of the observatory puts the handful of Mt. Graham squirrels, the only ones of their kind on the planet, in danger of extinction.

The six-year battle has split the faculty at the University of Arizona into warring factions, with the astronomers leading the fight for the observatory and the biologists leading the fight against.

One of the telescopes that could eventually occupy Emerald Peak, the top of the 10,720-foot Mt. Graham 75 miles northeast of Tucson, is designed by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Harvard-Smithsonian's proposed six-telescope array would measure submillimeter wavelengths, light waves shorter than radiowaves and longer than infrared. The Center, a joint venture of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory, is deciding whether to place its telescopes at Mt. Graham or at the 13,000-foot Mauna Kea in Hawaii, says Irwin I. Shapiro, director of the Center and Paine professor of practical astronomy.

Shapiro says that the state-of-the-art telescope he envisions has to be up very high to avoid water vapor that can absorb submillimeter waves.

"The ideal place for the submillimeter interferometer [the telescope array] is on a satellite in space, but that is too expensive," says Shapiro.

Shapiro has been in touch with officials at Arizona at least since 1985 about the possibility of housing his telescopes at Mt. Graham.

In February of that year he wrote a memo discussing the Mt. Graham choice and noted that Harvard-Smithsonian could receive some material benefits from opting for the Arizonia site.

He wrote that if the center chooses Mt. Graham to house its telescope, Harvard-Smithsonian Center would use its influence with the U.S. Forest Service to allow development of Emerald Peak. In exchange, Harvard-Smithsonian would receive telescope equipment or viewing time on Arizonia's Max-Planck Radioastronomic Submillimeter.

"We agreed that it made most sense for us to provide this help on a barter basis," states Shapiro in the memo.

Shapiro now says that Mt. Graham was not a controversial topic in 1985 when he wrote the memo. "We did not even know what a red squirrel was," he says.

He says the barter proposal should not be interpreted as meaning Harvard-Smithsonian prefers the Mt. Graham site over the one in Hawaii. "Sometimes it is easy to help your neighbor. If we are involved with a joint project with the University of Arizona, we do things for them, and they can pay us back," he says.

"But that has nothing to do with choosing a site for the submillimeter telescope," he says.

Officials at Harvard-Smithsonian are still deciding where to place their telescope and say a decision should be made some time in the spring.

Shapiro says he and other observatory officials are weighing a number of factors, but says some of the environmental arguments advanced have not been persuasive. "It's not at all clear that the observatory would harm the red squirrel," he says.

A Lack of Viewing Time

Shapiro's words are echoed by administrators and astronomers at Arizona who say that there is a compelling need for high-powered telescopes.

"In 1980 astronomers from University of Arizona and the Smithsonian realized there are not enough telescopes to provide sufficient viewing time for many research projects," says Steven E. Emerine, associate director of public information and a member of Arizona's Mt. Graham steering committee.

"They found many existing telescopes, such as the one on Mt. Palomar, to be damaged due to light polution. They needed new telescopes at higher altitudes, above 8000 feet," he says.

Emerine says that the University has been conscious of the environment while planning new telescope sites. "We thought we were environmentally responsible to not inflict an observatory on an untouched mountain--Chiricahua Peak in Southeastern Arizona. Therefore, Mt. Graham is the choice."

In a survey ranking 280 mountains useful for telescope observatories, the virgin-forested Chiricahua Peak was first, Emerine says. Mt. Graham, a mountain whose lower regions were logged for a century, came in second in the study.

Emerine says that the need for the observatory outweighs concern over the red squirrels.

"This is a red squirrel like all other red squirrels in America, except they are genetically different due to their isolation on the mountain for 10,000 years," he says.

And Elizabeth J. Maggio, Arizonia's associate director for development and public information says there is strong enough support on campus to go ahead with the project.

"In general, we have good support from the administration," she says. "There has been some protest from biologists, but not enough to stop the project. In a university community, you're going to get differing opinions."

`In Jeopardy of Extinction'

Those differing opinions are still echoing through the faculty at Arizona, where the biology department is still fighting the observatory, saying it would destroy a virgin habitat.

Arizonia biologist Peter J. Warshall '65 discovered the subspecies of squirrel and has led the opposition to the observatory.

"Until the number of squirrels exceeds 450, the number the mountain can support, they will be in jeopardy of extinction," says Warshall. "The squirrels' population has fallen due to a bad cone crop. The extreme fluxuation in their food supply due to tree cutting may cause their population to crash."

The squirrels live off seed cones from the Engleman spruce that they stockpile for winter. Each squirrel collects its own midden or pile of closed cones.

"The whole niche of the red squirrel is to bury the closed cones for later," says Warshall. "The cold microclimate under the tree canopy insures the seed cones remain closed. If the temperature under the tree heats up, the cones open, and other animals can get the seeds."

Warshall contends that a "fact war" is raging about how much of the squirrels' habitat will be encroached upon by the planned observatory.

About 650 acres of habitat remain now. Nine acres are to be cut for observatory construction. "Nine acres actually means 40 acres of damage to the squirrels habitat due to the `edge effect,'" says Warshall. "Sunlight and wind heat up the area of forest near the cut line, creating a microclimate too warm for the squirrels' use."

The fight over the Mt. Graham squirrel extends beyond academia. The squirrel is listed as an endangered species by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Because the squirrels are a listed species, their population is monitored by the U.S. Forest service.

Allegations of Fraud

A 1988 biological opinion about the Mt. Graham Red Squirrel from the Fish and Wildlife Service's regional director, Michael Spear, wreaked havoc in local and national environmental circles. He argued that the proposed observatory would not threaten the fragile squirrel population.

Spear's document became the basis for an exemption attached to conservation legislation in Congress that allowed development of Mt. Graham.

The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund challenged Spear's opinion, and in June, Congress's Governmental Accounting Office labeled his report as "fraudulent."

"Michael Spear took his own opinion and weighed it against biological facts," says Robert A. Witzeman, director of the Maricopa Audubon Society.

In light of the false basis for the rider's passage in Congress, the Sierra Club Legal Defense appealed to the U.S. Justice Department to change the exception that allows development of Mt. Graham.

"One month ago the Justice Department made a ruling--consisting only of a news release--that the Idaho-Arizona Act exempts the red squirrel from the Endangered Species Act," says Witzeman. "It came as quite a surprise to the drafters of the act. They seem to think the squirrel is not exempt."

A bill, introduced by Gerry Studds (D-Mass.), the chair of the House Subcommittee of Fisheries and the Environment, would reverse the observatories special status. But the measure did not pass this session.

A final hearing with the Justice Department is scheduled for December, and Harvard-Smithsonian will decide where to put its telescopes soon after.

Meanwhile, Mt. Graham and its population of red squirels waits. Some of the land has already been cleared, and Arizona is ready to finish the job when the spring thaw comes.

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