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OSU College of Arts and Sciences Department of Astronomy

Mount Graham and the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT)

Fact Sheet

Compiled by the OSU College of Mathematical & Physical Sciences and the Department of Astronomy in order to publicly respond with facts to the many myths about the LBT Project that have been repeated in letters to the the Columbus Dispatch and the The Lantern (OSU's student laboratory paper) from individuals opposed to the project.

Opinions expressed herein are those of the Ohio State University Department of Astronomy.


The [LBT] project is the first peacetime exemption of a project by the U.S. Congress from all environmental protection laws, yet scientific studies for NOAO/AURA showed 38 superior continental U.S. observatory sites and many far superior sites elsewhere.


The congressional act in question did not exempt the project from all environmental protection laws. The act reads:
"Subject to the terms and conditions of Reasonable and Prudent Alternative Three of the Biological Opinion, the requirements of section 7 of the Endangered Species Act shall be deemed satisfied. . ."
"the requirements of section 102(2)(c) of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 shall be deemed to have been satisfied."
The project is still "subject to any subsequent biological opinions issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act" and requires the University of Arizona, with the concurrence of the Secretary of Agriculture, to "develop and implement a management plan, consistent with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act."

Prior to the congressional action in 1988, the U.S. Forest Service, in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, spent three years and much effort in studying the environmental and Native American cultural issues on Mount Graham, reviewing impacts and alternatives, and collecting public opinion. This was done in compliance with environmental and historical preservation law. The Forest Service issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement in 1986 and, after further consultation, study, and compromise, a Final Environmental Impact Statement (250 pages) in 1988. The Biological Opinion of the Fish and Wildlife Service was developed as part of this process. The act of Congress recognized that the spirit of the law had been met. Congress did not exempt this project; rather, as a matter of public policy, they weighed the good of the Endangered Species Act as applied to the Mount Graham red squirrel against the public benefits of an important scientific project.

We suspect that this act of Congress was neither the first nor the last of its kind, but one of a large number of similar provisions which are enacted with some frequency. In fact, the National Resources Defense Council (an environmental organization) has published on the Worldwide Web ( an Environmental Record of the 104th Congress (1995-96). They state:

"Among the more destructive measures passed by the 104th Congress were . . . the highly publicized and ecologically destructive 'clear-cut logging rider', . . . and a long list of riders, buried in larger bills, which threatened public lands."
Under Environmentally Damaging Legislation, they list thirteen public laws (out of about 350 enacted under the 104th Congress), some with multiple provisions, which except, exclude, or excuse certain activities from the various requirements of preexisting environmental law.

The National Environmental Protection Act was enacted in 1969 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. During this time, the U.S. has been involved in Vietnam, in Grenada, and in the Gulf War. We don't understand what purpose the term "peacetime" serves in this context.

The cited scientific study (singular) of 1984, one of several carried out by the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO), did indeed list many sites ahead of Mount Graham (ranked #37). The cited study was carried out on the basis of topographic maps alone. The authors themselves acknowledged that all they had done was provide a list of potential sites and that their numerical exercise was no substitute for on-site surveys in which the seeing, transparency, water vapor, wind, altitude, precipitation, environmental impact, accessibility, cloud cover, and light pollution are all assessed. As a consequence of its circumscribed methodology, the study listed many excellent sites behind Mount Graham, including those at Kitt Peak (#59) and Mount Hopkins (#57), both long used by many institutions and generally regarded as excellent astronomical sites. The top-ranked site (in Nevada) is one to which no one has paid any further attention in the ensuing twelve years. NOAO subsequently chose to carry out detailed site studies on Mount Graham and on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. As a result, Mount Graham was (and continues to be) regarded in practical terms as the best available dark site in the continental U.S.


Every other university in the U.S. has rejected or abandoned the project because technically superior astrophysical sites exist elsewhere and because they decided to distance themselves from this unending environmental controversy and trespass on Native American religious culture.


Most universities in the U.S. have not considered joining a telescope project in the past ten years, let alone looked into the LBT. In Ohio alone there are twenty universities besides Ohio State, and not a single one of them has rejected or abandoned the project. It is true that of the small number of institutions which have considered the LBT project, most have been discouraged by the controversy and delays produced by the telescope opponents. We are not aware of any university which has opposed or condemned the project. Two other universities, Cornell and the University of Florida, are presently involved in negotiations to try to achieve some level of partnership in the LBT project.


Virtually every national conservation and indigenous rights organization has opposed the project, as well as many scientific, religious, human rights, and civic bodies worldwide.


As one would expect, there are a number of national conservation and indigenous peoples' rights organizations that either oppose the LBT project or did oppose it at some time in the past. There is currently pending in the courts a single environmental suit opposing the project. Neither the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, nor the Wilderness Society are parties to that suit. Further, the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC) has never taken a position on this issue. But the individuals who constitute the "Racial Justice Working Group" of the NCCC have gone on record as opposing the telescopes.


NOAO studies showed Mauna Kea and Chile visibility clearly superior and more nights suitable for astronomy than cloudy, stormy Mount Graham, which also has air turbulence, transpira- tion, and particulate contamination from the surrounding dense forest.


Mauna Kea and Chile are indeed slightly superior to Mount Graham, but only marginally so. However, economic factors and accessibility render them much less desirable. One should also be concerned with the possibility of pristine environments or endangered species on Mauna Kea or on mountains in Chile and with the fact that there is nowhere near the concern nor the legal protection for the environment in Chile as there is in the U.S.


The LBT partners have completely disregarded the rights of the Apaches, who recognize Mount Graham as the home of thunder and lightning spirits who have lived there since ancient times.


The Forest Service and the telescope project have continued to show concern and respect for the views of the San Carlos Apache Tribe about Mount Graham. The spectrum of views involved is much more complex than opponents to the project would have us believe. For instance, 70 percent of the 1,000 tribal members are Christians. We do not believe it should be possible within the tribe for a small group of traditionalists, such as the Apache Survival Coalition, to dictate the will of the majority. We believe that evidence shows that a majority of the San Carlos Apaches do not oppose the Mount Graham project, but rather are quite neutral or supportive in their feelings. Recent elections of members of the Tribal Council strongly support our conclusion.[1]

In Killing the White Man's Indian (Doubleday, 1996), Fergus Bordewich gives an excellent exposition of the complexities of this and similar Native American issues. The author deals with the question of internal tribal politics and the tensions between traditionalists and modernists. He also addresses the broader public policy issue of how to weigh Native American religious claims against other public and private goods and rights. Bordewich devotes half of Chapter Six to the Mount Graham situation and provides a valuable perspective. This chapter is recommended reading and lends support to our contention that the Mount Graham issue is being exploited by a small group of activists.

In order to comply with the National Historical Preservation Act, and in the preparation of the Final Environmental Impact Statement, the high elevation areas of Mount Graham were surveyed for sites of Native American cultural significance. Several such sites were identified. The Forest Service plan provides for their preservation.


Because of Mount Graham's bad viewing weather, full costs to Ohio taxpayers will be in excess of $27,000 per night when factoring in the lost nights caused by bad weather. Ohio State's three annual Ph.D. astronomy graduates and small staff cannot justify such high nightly expenditures when other university departments go hungry.


There are two telescopes on Mount Graham which have been operated for several years by the University of Arizona, the Vatican, and the Max Planck Institutes. They have experienced the weather they had expected, which ranks with that of the best observatory sites in the continental U.S.

The annual operating and capital amortization cost to Ohio State (assuming a 40-year telescope lifetime) of its share of the LBT will be about $600,000 (1996 dollars). Some of this cost will be offset by external grants and contracts awarded to the university.[2] Allowing for bad weather and maintenance, we expect forty observing nights per year. Without including external funding reductions, this translates to approximately $15,000 per night. This is a relatively small operating cost compared to that of other instruments of equivalent scientific importance (e.g. major accelerator facilities in physics).

The annual operating budget of Ohio State is more than $1.7 billion. The LBT investment represents therefore less than 0.04 percent of the university budget. We believe that for a university committed to research excellence, this is a small price to pay for maintaining a fundamental science like astronomy at a level comparable to the best in the world. The department needs a world-class instrument to maintain and further its standing. Furthermore, much of the funding for Ohio State's participation in the LBT project has resulted from restructuring Astronomy Department resources and almost all the remainder from college resources. The department and college have made commitments to the university administration that no funds will be withdrawn from instructional responsibilities in order to support the telescope.

In many ways, the LBT will be the world's best telescope. Ohio State recently committed to purchasing the world's best MRI instrument at a cost of about $10 million. Such expenditures are a normal mode of business for a major research university. We have described the costs, the benefits, and the controversy of this project to the USG (Undergraduate Student Government Assembly, the (OSU) Lantern, faculty leadership (Research Committee, Fiscal Committee, and the Senate Leadership), and the administration of the university, and we have received gratifying support from all of them.


Mount Graham has more life zones and vegetative communities than any other U.S. mountain, and it is the tiny, vulnerable, virgin, undeveloped 400-acre spruce-fir summit which makes Mount Graham unique. The trees in this summit old-growth forest predate our nation by almost two centuries.


More than 18 plants and animals unique to the world have evolved on this Galapagos-like cradle of evolution since glacial recession, and the observatory destroys or fragments over 27 percent of the critically endangered red squirrel's best habitat.


We are skeptical of the claim that Mount Graham has more life zones and vegetative communities that any other U.S. mountain. We believe that uniform and comprehensive inventories do not exist to permit such a conclusion. By the same token, we have no data to contradict the claim. We suspect that among Mount Rainier (14,410 feet), Kings Peak (13,528), Wheeler Peak (13,161), Boudary Peak (13,140), Borah Peak (12,662), Mount Elbert (14,433), Mount Whitney (14,494), Humphreys Peak (12,633), Mauna Kea (13,796) and Mount McKinley (20,320), there is a mountain likely to exceed Mount Graham in the stated measures. We are prepared to believe that Mount Graham is the most studied mountain in the U.S. In any case, the claim is irrelevant since Mount Graham occupies 198,000 acres, and the Mount Graham International Observatory (two present telescopes plus the LBT) requires 8.6 acres or only 0.004 percent of the mountain. The spruce-fir summit of Mount Graham is at least 900 acres in extent.[3] Interestingly, "Like most old growth forests, the spruce-fir forest has relatively few other plant species." [4] There is additional spruce-fir forest on Heliograph Peak, and there are isolated stands at lower levels.

Not only is Mount Graham a large mountain, it has a high elevation ridge line with at least 8 peaks along that line. Some of the chief peaks are High Peak (a.k.a. Mount Graham, at 10,712 feet), Hawk's Peak, Emerald Peak, Heliograph Peak, and Plain View Peak, all above 10,000 feet. There are over 1,200 acres above 10,000 feet and over 3,000 acres above 9,600 feet. The three- telescope plan calls for a total of 2.52 acres for facilities around Emerald Peak. Of this amount, the LBT will account for 1.4 acres. The plan also requires that an access road (almost all of which has been in service since 1991) be built consuming another 6.1 acres. However, the existence of this access road and the telescope facility will allow the Forest Service to abandon and reforest Forest Road 507, part of Forest Road 669, and several fuel breaks (or fire breaks), thereby adding 60 acres back to the forest. "This will probably increase late seral stage forest acres in the long run."[5]

The high elevation areas of Mount Graham are beautiful, but they are not pristine natural areas. There is evidence of former logging near the summits. In fact, one biological survey document states that the High Peak habitat is "degraded." [6] There is a 40-mile long, two-lane highway, AZ 366, which runs up and along Mount Graham. After passing the observatory turnoff, the highway continues for 9 miles to a 40-acre man-made lake at Riggs Flat. The mountain has multiple campgrounds with developed sanitary facilities, approximately 100 cabins, and a Bible camp. The Forest Service estimates about 280,000 RVD (recreational visitor days) per year to the mountain. These visits are concentrated in summer and fall weekends, greatly increasing usage at these times.

Mount Graham is part of Unit 31 of the Arizona Game and Fish Department and is extensively hunted and fished. The Abert squirrel, a serious competitor to the endangered red squirrel, was introduced to the mountain to improve the area's attraction to hunters. Streams on the mountain have been treated to kill native fish and the non-native Apache trout has been introduced.

The Mount Graham red squirrel is one of thirty subspecies of the common red squirrel which inhabits most of North America. Although not a distinct species, it is entitled to the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Much has been learned about the squirrel in the past twelve years, but there is still a great deal that is unknown. Habitat on Mount Graham which was rated good or excellent for the red squirrel in 1988 amounted to over 2,000 acres. The red squirrel is known to be an opportunistic feeder, and recent studies indicate that the quality of habitat for the squirrel varies with the seed crops of different tree species; the squirrels follow the seed crops and are not always found at the higher altitudes. The primary threats to the squirrel's survival are fire, drought, and competitive pressure from the Abert squirrel. To benefit the red squirrel, the present Forest Service plan calls for the creation of a 1,750 acre Refugium (to spare the squirrel from human recreational and hunting stresses), a continuing program of study and monitoring, and the reforestation actions described above.

Perhaps this is an appropriate point to mention that although the Mount Graham red squirrel was thought to be extinct (extirpated) in the 1950s and '60s, it was rediscovered in the early '70s. There seems to have been no effort at that time to list the squirrel as endangered or even to remove the squirrel from the state hunting list until 1986. In the fall of 1985, there was a five-week season on squirrels (all species) with a daily bag limit of 5!


The University of Arizona's own studies showed visibility at the Large Binocular site was "unacceptable " or "marginal" and had the worst visibility of any place on Mount Graham due to its all too flat topography and too dense forestation.


Extensive NOAO/AURA studies have shown that the Mount Graham sites are excellent. The results of a ten-year study by the University of Arizona have shown that the Emerald Peak site on Mount Graham ranks slightly behind Mauna Kea in Hawaii in "Comparative Image Sharpness," the primary quality of importance to telescope sites, and ahead of the sites in Chile of the planned European Southern Observatory and the Magellan projects, two major projects of roughly the same magnitude as that of the LBT.

There are sites on Mount Graham which are even better than the current Emerald Peak sites. In compliance with environmental and cultural preservation law, extensive surveys were carried out on Mount Graham to determine if and where it would be reasonable and prudent to allow telescopes. These surveys indicated that some of the more astronomically desirable sites contained critical biological or cultural resources. As a result, the University of Arizona abandoned its effort to build on these sites. The current siting is a compromise worked out by the Forest Service primarily in the process of developing their Final Environmental Impact Statement (1988) and their preferred alternative. In fact, the university's original proposal was for an observatory area of almost 60 acres on two peaks for 17 telescopes. As part of the compromise arrangement, this has been scaled back to 2.6 acres (plus access road) on one peak for 3 telescopes.


Lawyers for the astronomers were so uncaring that they argued that even if every one of these unique-to-the world squirrels were to die due to the project, no U.S. law could stop them due to their rider which had exempted them from environmental law. We do not condone such remarks, any more than would project detractors condone the criminal acts which have been committed by environmental extremists opposed to the project. We do not see the relevance of this complaint to the project itself. Our reading of the congressional acts is also at odds with the "legal" opinion expressed by the attributed comments.


It was impossible for the University of Arizona to claim that their illegal and clandestine "Pearl Harbor" (Dec. 7, 1993) deforestation of East Emerald Peak was better for the squirrel since half of it was unstudied, and when it finally was studied after the clear-cut, seven new squirrel territories were tragically discovered there.


The clearing of East Emerald Peak (Peak 10477) by the University of Arizona was neither illegal nor clandestine. It was done under a permit issued by the Forest Service. In fact, when the Mount Graham Coalition did bring suit as a consequence of the site clearing, the defendants they named were the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The University of Arizona had to request permission of the court to intervene as a defendant in the suit.

The point here is that the new site was seen as better for the telescope than the old one and as having less impact on the squirrels. This was affirmed by both the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Forest Service believed that under the 1988 Act, it could make minor modifications within the spirit of the Act. The court on procedural, not substantive, grounds found that the Forest Service had exceeded its authority. The congressional rider of 1996 in essence sanctioned the Forest Service action.


In 1990, the U.S. General Accounting Office and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service testified before Congress that the endangered species study approving the telescopes would be indefensible in court and was fraudulent.


A representative of the GAO did testify before a subcommittee of the Congress that, "We believe that the soundness of the Emerald Peak development alternative is questionable." The words "indefensible" and "fraudulent" do not appear in our transcript of the testimony. The GAO conclusion is reached largely on procedural issues of whether the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, or the Congress should be permitted to make policy decisions which weigh risk to an endangered species against benefits of a project. The GAO and Fish and Wildlife Service seem to have had a longstanding difference of opinion on this matter, which has little to do with the squirrels themselves.


In summary, the LBT is a major international scientific project which is important to the future of astronomy. It provides a wonderful opportunity for an already strong Ohio State department to join the very top ranks of its field. Mount Graham is an excellent site for telescopes; two are currently in operation on the site, and construction on the LBT is already under way. Although there will be some environmental impact, it will be minor and will be ameliorated by compensatory actions as proposed by the Forest Service plan. The Native American issues are complex, but the project is sensitive to the concerns of Native Americans and has complied with all federal cultural preservation law. We are not indifferent to environmental and Native American concerns and intend to continue to work constructively within the project to accommodate these concerns to the greatest extent possible.


1) In November 1996, four districts elected one member each to the eleven member Tribal Council. Ola Davis, chair of the Apache Survival Coalition, lost in her district. Raleigh Thompson, who visited Columbus recently as a spokesperson for the Apache Survival Coalition, lost in his district. Harrison Talgo and William Belvado won handily in their districts. In a letter to the editor of The (Canton) Repository last year, Talgo stated,
"In truth, most Apaches do not consider the proposed observatory to be an inappropriate use of a small part of Mount Graham. . . . It is clear to many of the Apache people that the Mount Graham telescope issue is not one of Apache religion, but one of exploitation by non-Indians trying to stop a multimillion-dollar international science project."
In a letter to Congressman Yates, Belvado wrote,
". . . it must be stated that groups, such as the San Carlos Apache Survival Coalition, do not represent the San Carlos Apache Tribe."

2) In the current year, we expect external research grant funds to the Department of Astronomy to total about $500,000 in direct costs and $300,000 to Ohio State in indirect costs.

3) Final Environmental Impact Statement, U. S. Forest Service, November 1988, p. 3-80.

4) Ibid., p. 3-80.

5) Ibid., p. 3-85.

6) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Opinion, July 14, 1988, p. 20.