Court Backs Ecologists In Halting Telescope

ENVIRONMENTAL opponents of the Mt. Graham International Observatory in southeastern Arizona won a legal victory last week that they hope will finally doom the controversial project.

On Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's July 28 ruling halting construction of what would be the world's largest telescope. The court agreed that the University of Arizona (UA) might be building the $60 million telescope outside the area Congress approved in 1988.

Environmentalists have battled for years to stop the observatory because of the threat they say it poses to the endangered Mt. Graham red squirrel and to the fragile ecosystem atop the 10,700-foot peak. Although all previous court challenges to the project have been unsuccessful, opponents hope the continued delays and legal costs will force the university's investors to pull out.

``This kind of harassment is deeply troubling to the investors,'' concedes Peter Strittmatter, head of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory.

Mr. Strittmatter said the ecologists' concerns are bogus because the project was moved about a third of a mile from the original site specifically to protect red squirrel habitat. ``Either site would be fine with us,'' he said.

Arguments over whether proper environmental studies have been done on the new site will be heard in November. In the meantime, Strittmatter said, UA will ask the court to allow it to continue building an access road and to dig utility trenches. The university cleared most of the trees from the new site last winter.

Two smaller telescopes have been completed on Mt. Graham, 70 miles northeast of Tucson, and up to four more are planned.

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