By Donella Meadows
–May 9, 1996–
Mount Graham soars ten thousand feet out of the Arizona desert. As it rises its slopes get cooler and moister, until on its peak a forest grows. Biologists call that forest a “sky island,” a 615-acre scrap of never-logged Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir. Below it are transition zones of heavily cut forest interrupted by roads, vacation homes, and firebreaks, descending down to desert. The creatures that live on top of Mt. Graham are as stuck there as if they lived on a real island.
Those creatures include at least 18 species found nowhere else, one of which is the Mt. Graham red squirrel. There are somewhere between 150 and 300 squirrels left. The U.S. Forest Service (which manages Mt. Graham for us taxpayers) says there’s a 30-70 percent probability that it will be extinct within 30 years.
Nevertheless, thanks to the wonders of Washington politics, still more development is about to shrink the Mt. Graham sky island. Of the dozens of anti-environmental riders congressional Republicans tried to attach to the 1996 budget, just one survived to be signed into law by President Clinton. It waives the Endangered Species Act so the University of Arizona can build a telescope on top of Mt. Graham.
This is a rerun of an old and bitter story that pits the university’s astronomers against its biologists and the Apache Indians against the Vatican. To the Apaches Mt. Graham is a sacred site. The Vatican recently built an observatory there in order to contact aliens and convert them. (That is not a joke.) The Holy See joined an astronomical consortium that originally planned 18 Mt. Graham observatories, two of which have been built — one for the Vatican and one for Germany’s Max Planck Institute — thanks to another waiver of the Endangered Species Act, signed without fuss by George Bush in 1988.
This year Bill Clinton fought against a host of Republican riders — to log the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, to remove EPA authority over wetlands, to unprotect the Mojave Desert. The bargaining was tough and dirty. We taxpayers ended up paying $110 million in Alaskan development grants just so we could enforce national environmental laws in the Tongass.
Bill Clinton vetoed and bribed his way around all the riders but Mt. Graham. Why? Is the Arizona delegation so tough? Can telescopes be built on no other mountain? What goes on in those rooms in Washington where the Endangered Species Act is pitted against the national budget? I’ve been calling around all week trying to find out.
In Arizona, three theories are floating around: the Pastor, the Panetta, and the Clinton.
Ed Pastor, the only Arizona Democrat in Congress is usually an environmental good guy. But he is Hispanic, Catholic, and a supporter of the telescope. Maybe he leaned hard on the White House. “Just a continuation of the Conquest,” sniff the Apaches.
The Panetta theory assumes that White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta did some kind of Machiavellian deal with an eye on the coming election. Throw this one to the Republicans; Clinton doesn’t have much chance of taking Arizona anyway.
The Clinton theory assumes that the president is neutral about the environment, unconscious of Native Americans and easily excited about international cooperation and big science. Though Republicans wrote the rider, holders of this theory plan to pin the loss of Mt. Graham squarely on the president. “Clinton learns from pain, not from praise.”
Washington folks who were in or near the room where the deal was cut tell me that it wasn’t so sinister. “Hey, after lots of vetoes there were seven nasty riders left; we got rid of two completely, we got three suspended with waivers, one we reworded so it was toothless. We only had to throw one bone to the other side.” They were offended that I was asking about the bone instead of the triumphs.
Why THAT bone? Because they figured it would do the least harm. Logging the Tongass or removing EPA control over wetlands would affect huge areas. The “national enviros” would have gone crazy. The White House folks are honestly sorry about Mt. Graham, they know they shouldn’t allow the Endangered Species Act to be munched to death by special exception, but it’s just 615 acres. “We weren’t going to veto the national budget over that.”
So the smallest bone got thrown to the Republicans. Environmental deals get counted like Superbowl scores — won five, tied one, lost one. We measure a sacred place against the national budget and the coming election. Now really, if you got to choose how our nation would make decisions that do irreversible damage to our few remaining spots of undisturbed land, would you want it done like this?
The university expects to start construction this summer. Friends of Mt.Graham think the rider is unclear enough to take the case back to court. Some members of the Clinton administration say hopefully that the president could order the Forest Service to enforce the Endangered Species Act in spite of the rider. Meanwhile this week, with fires burning near Mt. Graham, some timber was cleared from the peak “to protect the telescopes.” The sky island goes on shrinking.
Franklin Stanley, a San Carlos Apache spiritual leader says, “Why do you come and try to take my church away and treat the mountain as if it was about money instead of respect? Nowhere else in the world stands another mountain like the mountain you are trying to disturb. On this mountain is a great life-giving force. You have no knowledge of the place you are about to destroy.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996