Squirrels In The Balance

By Sean Reagan

John McCain’s senior policy advisor Doug Holtz-Eakin said recently that when it comes to the environment, McCain likes to weigh the costs and benefits of a given issue rather than submit it to an ideological litmus test.

“Look, he always balances what are the environmental implications of these enterprises and what are the economic benefits that could come from them,” Holtz-Eakin said. “That is, in general, an approach which may be harder to read than a flat ideological X or Y, but it’s how he reads these things, it’s how he evaluates these kinds of decisions.”

So how does that explain McCain’s role in the Mount Graham starbase controversy?

In the eighties, Arizona had four major telescopes: one on the campus of the University of Arizona, the Mount Lemmon complex, Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Mount Hopkins Multiple-Mirror Telescope complex. Arizona is a kind of mecca for academic stargazers. Precious few of southeastern Arizona’s mountain ranges lack astronomical facilities of some kind.

That abundance was one reason that voters objected when the University of Arizona decided it was going to build yet another one in the Pinaleño range east of Tucson. The University had set their sights on the 10,700-foot summit of Mount Graham.

The San Carlos Apache Nation objected because the mountain was sacred to them. Environmentalists objected because its slopes were home to Tamiasciurus hudsonicus grahamensis, the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel. A complex web of state and federal laws threatened to delay the project or even derail it.

Enter the lobbyists.

Which is, of course, just another way of saying enter John McCain.

The university tapped McCain to push through congress the so-called Idaho and Arizona Conservation Act of 1988. This deceptively-titled law was actually a double-barrel blast at the environment: it gave the green light to illegal logging in the wildlands of Idaho and for the construction of the Mount Graham telescopes, shielding them from any kind of litigation by environmentalists or Apaches. To help sneak this malign measure through congress, the University shelled out more than a half-million dollars for the services of the powerhouse DC lobbying firm Patton, Boggs and Blow.

The bill passed in the dead of night and, in the words of one University of Arizona lawyer, it gave the astronomers the right to move forward “even if it killed every squirrel”.

It also exempted the project from the National Historic Preservation Act and other laws that might have made it possible for the Apaches to assert their claims to the mountain, giving the University of Arizona the dubious honor of becoming the first academic institution to seek the right to trample on the religious freedoms of Native Americans.

Can’t you just see McCain’s “balancing act?” On the one hand there’s ecological concerns, the possible extinction of a species, and the degradation of Native American culture.

On the other hand is . . . well, money.

Color me not surprised McCain went the way he did.

Gregory McNamee says that in the end, the issue isn’t the Mount Graham Red Squirrel, which may have been doomed anyway, but rather “the mountain itself.”

Mount Graham stands as a small example of the rapacity of modern corporatism, of which the modern university and scientific community are an integral part. A tract of 8.6 acres seems scarcely worth noticing in the face of corporatism’s recent accomplishments: since 1970, after all, more than a million acres of virgin old-growth forest have been clearcut in the United States alone.

Actually, it’s a John McCain issue. For a guy who runs around bragging about his independence and free-thinking and “I’m gonna weigh the pros and then I’m gonna weigh the cons” he managed to drop the ball on this one pretty good.

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