By Donella Meadows
–August 3, 1995–
Political argument these days is conducted through stories. The woman who spilled hot coffee on herself and sued the coffee vendor. The prisoner let out on furlough who committed a horrible crime. The builder who was stopped from putting up a hundred homes, because an endangered Blue-gray Snailwort was found on his land.
Stories are useful. They illustrate the real-world, day-to-day, often unintended workings of policy. They can suggest how to make policy better. But stories are too often exaggerated or distorted or atypical — one story selected out of thousands to make a political point. It’s usually easy to find another story to make the opposite point.
Here, for example, is an endangered species story that does not show a mindless bureacracy squashing an honest entrepreneur just to save some slimy creature no one ever heard of. In this case the creature is a cuddly squirrel. It is threatened not by a greedy developer but by a public university. What gets squashed is the Endangered Species Act.
Mt. Graham in southeast Arizona harbors five progressively cooler ecological zones, from desert at the bottom to a spruce-fir forest at the top. Because cool-climate creatures cannot cross the desert, to them Mt. Graham is as much an island as if it were surrounded by ocean. Cougar, peregrine falcon, black bear, and Apache trout live on the mountain, plus at least 18 species that are found nowhere else — one of which is the Mt. Graham red squirrel.
Somewhere between 150 and 300 Mt. Graham squirrels still exist, mainly in the 615 acres of undisturbed forest at the top of the mountain. The lower slopes have been heavily logged and invaded by vacation homes, camps, and roads.
Eighty miles from Mt. Graham, the University of Arizona in Tucson is a world-class center of astronomy. It already uses observatories (with dormitories, parking lots, and helicopter landing pads) on three mountain peaks nearby, but when the university planned its next generation of telescopes, rather than expand at any of those sites, it chose to build on Mt. Graham. The university formed a consortium of research partners to build 18 telescopes there. The partners included the Smithsonian, the Max Planck Institute in Germany, several American and Canadian universities, and the Vatican.
(The Vatican? Telescopes? It seems that the Holy See staffs a number of astronomer-priests in order, I am told, to detect extraterrestrial life, catechize it, and if necessary convert it.)
The university asked the Forest Service, which manages Mt. Graham for you and me, to allow an observatory in the mountaintop patch of never-cut forest. As was the way of the Forest Service in the 80s, it said sure, go ahead. Ecologists from the same university reminded the government that the law requires an environmental impact statement. Research done for that statement revealed the dire status of the squirrel, and in 1987 it was declared endangered. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages endangered species for you and me, recommended no further reduction of its already diminished habitat.
The university could have done several constructive things then, such as find another mountain, or sit down with biologists to figure out how to build telescopes without decreasing squirrel habitat. Instead it swung its weight around. It pressured the Fish and Wildlife Service to OK a smaller plan with fewer telescopes. It spent a million dollars on a Washington lobbying firm, which convinced the Arizona Congressional delegation to insert a paragraph deep within the 1988 Arizona-Idaho Conservation Act, allowing the University of Arizona to build an access road and its first three telescopes atop Mt. Graham with a special exemption from the Endangered Species Act.
This high-handedness set off a firestorm of outrage. Said ecologist Peter Warshall, “The University is teaching its students, if you don’t like a law, buy it.” From this point on, every step the University took was dogged with biologists chaining themselves to cattle guards or Apaches (to whom the mountain is sacred) blocking roads. An Apache delegation even went to the Vatican, thinking they would find sympathy there for the preservation of sacred places. The Vatican replied that a place without a church or shrine can’t be sacred, so it would go ahead and build its telescope.
Meanwhile the university defied injunctions, felled trees on Mt. Graham, hired consultants to appease the Apache, and paid $90,000 to a local tribe to get Indian support for the project. The Vatican and Max Planck telescopes were built. The university’s own much larger one is hung up in court, because the university tried to shift its site outside the area mandated by Congress. The Smithsonian and the other universities have dropped out of the project. A lot of people at the University of Arizona are permanently furious with each other. About six more acres on Mt. Graham have been cleared and another 20 degraded. It’s too early to know what is happening to the squirrel.
Maybe you see this as a story about a silly squirrel messing up a multimillion-dollar science project. To me it’s a story about the weakness of law when challenged by money, power, and stubbornness. It makes me doubt all the stories that purport to show the Endangered Species Act as rigid and unreasonable. I wonder how to make that Act stronger — not more bureaucratic or dumber, but less corruptible by people and institutions blinded by their own willfulness, so that they can’t see alternatives, can’t listen to others, and can’t see the value in nature’s diversity.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995