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An Odd Enemy of Endangered Species : An Arizona squirrel runs afoul of scientists with little regard for Earthlings and a lot of clout in Washington.

August 06, 1995|DONELLA H. MEADOWS | Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College

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 100 homes because an endangered blue-gray snailwort was found on his land.

Stories are useful. They illustrate the 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. 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 bureaucracy 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 remain, 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 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.

(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 there be no reduction of the already diminished habitat.

The university could have found another mountain or sat down with biologists to figure out how to build telescopes without decreasing squirrel habitat. Instead it pressured the Fish and Wildlife Service to OK a smaller plan with fewer telescopes. It spent $1 million on a Washington lobbying firm, which persuaded the Arizona congressional delegation to insert a paragraph deep within the 1988 Arizona-Idaho Conservation Act, allowing the university to build an access road and its first three telescopes with an exemption from the Endangered Species Act.

This highhandedness 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." Every step the university took was dogged with biologists chaining themselves to cattle guards or Apaches (to whom the mountain is sacred) blocking roads.

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 much larger one is hung up in court. The Smithsonian and the other universities have dropped out of the project. About six more acres on Mt. Graham have been cleared and another 20 degraded.

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. I wonder how to make the Endangered Species Act stronger--not more bureaucratic or dumber, but less corruptible by people and institutions blinded by their own willfulness.

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