Out of space: John McCain, telescopes and the desecration of Mount Graham


PHOTO/Mount Graham Coalition.

On Memorial Day weekend, a little reminder of who John McCain really is…

We waited for a night when the moon was obscured by clouds. It sounded like a silly plan here in the heart of the Arizona desert, where Oregonians stream each year to worship the unrelenting sun.

But the wait was only two days. Then the sky clouded up, just as the Apaches predicted. These weren’t rain clouds, just a smoke-blue skein, thin as morning fog, but dense enough to dull the moonlight and shield our passage across forbidden ground.

We were going to see the scopes. The mountain was under lockdown. Armed guards, rented by the University of Arizona, blocked passage up the new road and patrolled the alpine forest on the crest of Mount Graham. Only certified astronomers and construction workers were permitted entry. And university donors. And Vatican priests.

But not environmentalists. And not Apaches. Not at night, anyway. Not any more.

Yet, here we were, skulking through strange moss-draped stands of fir and spruce, displaced relics from a boreal world, our eyes peeled for white domes and trigger-happy cops.

It says something about the new nature of this mountain, this sky island, that we heard the telescopes before we saw them, a steady buzz like the whine of a table saw down the block.

The tail-lights of SUVs streamed through the trees, packing astronomers and their cohorts towards the giant machine eyes, on a road plastered over the secret middens of the mountain’s most famous native: the Mount Graham red squirrel.

The tiny squirrel was once thought be extinct. In 1966, federal biologists said that they had found no evidence of the squirrel in the Pinaleno Range (the strange mountains of which Mount Graham forms the largest peak) since 1958. Then five years later a biologist working in the shaggy forests at the tip of the mountain found evidence of at least four squirrels. A wider survey showed an isolated population on the mountain’s peak. In 1987, the squirrel was finally listed as a endangered species.

Still, the squirrel population fluctuates wildly from year to year, in cycles largely tied to the annual pine cone crop. But these days the population spikes rarely top 500 animals on the entire planet-which for them constitutes the upper flanks of Mount Graham, the same swath of forest claimed by the astronomers. But the trendlines for the squirrels all point down: down and out. And the astronomers just keep coming. And so do the clearcuts. The new campsites. The unnatural fires. Extinction looms.

We edged along the road, under the cover of a beauty-strip of fir trees, until we came to a fence, tipped with razored wire, and beyond it a clearing slashed into the forest. And there before us crouched one of the mechanical space-eyes, set within a white cube, sterile as a hospital. The structure is so cold and lifeless that it could have sprung from the pen of Richard Meier, the corporate architect responsible for the dreadful Getty Museum blasted onto the crest of the Santa Monica mountains outside LA.

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