A Brief History of the Controversy Surrounding the Mount Graham International Observatory

Part of the Astrophysics and Space Science Library book series (ASSL, volume 296)


In 1981 Steward Observatory was looking for a location on which to build new telescopes, in order to enhance its research programs. The highest mountain in Southern Arizona is Mount Graham (elevation: ∼10,800 feet, or ∼3,300m), which lies approximately 70 miles (110 km) Northeast of Tucson. It was an obvious candidate, and in fact had been considered in the mid 1950’s as a possible location for the national observatory (which went to Kitt Peak). The mountain was in no way pristine — it had been heavily logged throughout much of the 20th century, contained paved roads, campgrounds, summer cottages and microwave relay antennas — but several biologists in positions of influence in the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service opposed the development of an observatory site. They pursued a strategy of finding an endangered species — the Mount Graham red squirrel — apparently with the purpose of blocking the telescopes. In order to counter this strategy, Peter Strittmatter (director of Steward Observatory) mounted a campaign to have Mount Graham considered as a potential site for the National New Technology Telescope (which turned into the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea). He managed to annoy many astronomers in the USA, most of whom were not aware of the background actions of the biologists. Ultimately the matter was settled by legislation in the United States Congress, who instructed the United States Forest Service to issue a special-use permit to the University of Arizona to build three telescopes (the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, the Submillimeter Telescope Observatory, and the Large Binocular Telescope). The observatory has had no effect on the squirrels, which under no rational definition could be considered endangered. Nevertheless, we as a community must be prepared to explain in terms that non-astronomers can understand why more mountain tops should be devoted to astronomy.


Observatory Site Forest Service Poison Pill United States Forest Service Biological Opinion 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • L. Sage
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of AstronomyUniversity of MarylandUSA

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