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No. 446:
Of Mice and Men

Today, we design a system in a public arena. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A pretty little red squirrel lives on Mount Graham in Arizona. In 1984 his species numbered around 330. Mount Graham is high up, and far from city lights. In 1984 the University of Arizona wanted to build a large observatory there. Mitchell Waldrop of Science magazine tells what happened next.

University people wanted to begin by talking with environmentalists. The Forest Service said that was their job. So the University shrugged and went on to file its site plan. The plan was ambitious. It showed 18 telescopes on the mountaintop.

Environmentalists had lost a lot of ground by 1984. They were livid when they finally saw the plans. The government let things smolder two more years. Then they passed an opinion. The virgin forest and the squirrels needed protection. On the advice of a lawyer, the University made a counter-proposal. They'd make the area so safe that the squirrels wouldn't have to go on the endangered species list.

Headlines the next day screamed that the University meant to solve its problem by keeping squirrels off the list. Besides, the Forest Service said it was their business to look out for squirrels. The squirrels did go onto the endangered list.

By 1988, the University had satisfied the government by cutting back to seven telescopes. But Fish and Wildlife said an access road had to be rerouted. When the University agreed, the Forest Service ordered another long round of public hearings.

The University, now desperate to avoid more delay, finally used political clout to get an exception from Congress. They paid dearly for that in American opinion. They'd gone around the Endangered Species act. They'd made big science look like law unto itself. Now, as work begins, everyone is left with a foul aftertaste. A Sierra Club official looked sadly at his natural ally, the astronomer. He said, "These are not the enemies we would have chosen." Meanwhile, the squirrel population fluctuates. For some reason, it sank to a dangerous low during the fight -- only 140 squirrels.

So what went wrong? It's too easy to blame the environmentalists. If we don't have people who'll stand in front of tractors, we'll someday need people willing to stand in front of tanks. We need vocal minorities.

And we engineers have to hear and ingest grass-roots debate before we finish big system designs like this. These troubles began when public debate mired into Kafkaesque infinity. When that happens -- when people lose hope of reasonable response -- common sense is doomed.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Waldrop, M.M., The Long, Sad Saga of Mount Graham. Science, Vol. 248, 22 June, 1990, pg. 1479-1481.