Squirrel Advocates Say - Mt. Graham Telescopes Must Go!

By Tom Beal
Arizona Daily Star
Squirrel Advocates Say - Mt. Graham Telescopes Must Go!

The Mount Graham International Observatory has violated the terms of its occupancy of Southern Arizona's highest mountain and should be moved to make room for recovery of an endangered red squirrel that lives only in the high forests of the Pinaleño Mountains, environmental groups charge.

Three groups that have long opposed the University of Arizona-run observatory say continued degradation of habitat in the Coronado National Forest atop the Pinaleños near Safford should trigger reconsideration of the presence of the telescopes, and a nearby church camp and residences.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Maricopa Audubon and the Mount Graham Coalition sent a "notice of intent to sue" to the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, telling the agencies to officially review the biological status of the Mount Graham red squirrel or face a federal lawsuit to force formal consultation under the terms of the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit will be filed in 60 days, the notice says.

The University of Arizona declined comment through Leslie Tolbert, UA vice president for research.

Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch, who must approve or deny special-use permits for the facilities, is on vacation this week.

"The Coronado cannot comment until we review the notice of intent to sue. The team to do this will not be available until after the holidays," Coronado spokes-woman Heidi Schewel wrote in an e-mail.

Clear-cutting and back-burning of the Englemann spruce forest, conducted in 2006 during a fire that threatened three telescopes, including the UA-led Large Binocular Telescope, has increased the size of the scopes' footprint atop the mountain and should trigger a reassessment of their presence, according to the notices sent Wednesday to local and regional officials and their parent agencies in the U.S. Interior and Agriculture departments.

The groups say protecting the telescopes has taken priority over preservation of habitat.

"As long as buildings remain within habitat essential for the Mount Graham Red Squirrel's survival and recovery, and as long as future firefighting efforts are consumed by the primacy of building protection, jeopardy to Mount Graham Red Squirrel cannot be overcome. The telescopes and other structures must go if the Mount Graham Red Squirrel has any chance of survival," the notice says.

Robin Silver, co-founder and board member of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the groups want the Forest Service to deny permits for the telescopes and a church camp and cabins at a site called Old Columbine. "They are causing ongoing destruction of habitat and preventing recovery of habitat essential to the red squirrel recovery," Silver said.

The UA's application for a 20-year extension of its permit, which expired on April 1, 2009, is under review by the Forest Service and currently listed as "on hold."

Tolbert, UA vice president for research, said the observatory continues to operate under "an automatic extension of permission to work there until we deal with the question of renewal."

Tolbert said she had no response to the notice, which she hadn't seen and is not directed to the university. It is a matter for Forest Service response, Tolbert said.

Actions taken "under the guise of fighting fire" have cleared areas around the telescopes that are 40 percent greater than the 8.6 acres allowed, the notice alleges. Additionally, it says about 250 acres of habitat were unnecessarily burned by a multiagency fire team fighting the Nuttall Complex Fire in June and July 2004.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

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