The Mount Graham Affair | The dispute over a small bible camp in Arizona

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The Center For Biological Diversity is declaring war on a small Church camp on Mount Graham.

The Arizona Church of Christ Bible Camp is a small Bible Camp that sits just east of Webb Peak on Mount Graham in Arizona. The Bible Camp allows kids of all ages to spent time in the wilderness. Among them are troubled teens who often experience their first outdoor adventures at the camp. It was built in 1966 and is visible on maps as early as 1972 as the “Arizona Bible School.” Since its creation, the camp has hosted several getaway retreats for Youth summer camps, religious groups, scouting events, and other community functions.

The Bible Camp is allowed to operate under a special use permit from the Coronado National Forest that expired in 2009 and is currently up for renewal. The property is located on public land, and there are several buildings, a water system, and other amenities. Despite being quite old and needing some work, It’s functional and easy to maintain the facility.

Thousands of folks have enjoyed the Bible Camp over the past 55 years. On the permit renewal, you will see many positive comments about the Bible Camp. One woman says,

“Our organization rents this camp facility for our teen summer camp and college weekend retreat. The camp facility is very rustic and the camp board works hard to make sure we leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but memories and pictures. We introduce teens and college students of all backgrounds to the beauty and awesomeness of nature. Countless students have been positively impacted by their experiences at the Mt Graham Bible Camp.”

The historic town of Old Columbine

Old Columbine is a historic town that was founded in the 1890s. It’s situated on public land just south of the bible camp and is visible on maps as early as 1904. The town started as a retreat for locals to escape the summer heat. Today, the community of cabins is allowed to operate under special use permits. However, they are not up for renewal.

1904 map showing Old Columbine before the camp was built.
1904 map showing Old Columbine before the camp was built.

Permits Accepted

The Coronado National Forest accepted the Special Use Permit for the Bible Camp, and a Final Record of Decision should come sometime this year. This is excellent news and nothing to complain about. If all goes well, the Church will continue to provide our youth with an opportunity to learn and grow a fondness for nature. However, the Center For Biological Diversity (CBD) is not happy with the Forest Service’s decision to renew the permit and the Church is now facing incredible hardship.

Special use permits for recreational cabins are different than Special Use Permits for Organizational Camps. Simply put, they are both semi-private agreements between individuals and federal land managers where the individual owns the buildings, and the federal government owns the land. They must be renewed every twenty years.

The University of Arizona Mount Graham International Observatory

In the early 90s, the University of Arizona erected an International Observatory on top of Mount Graham. The observatory is part of the Steward Observatory, the Department Of Astronomy’s research arm at the University of Arizona. The Observatory was enabled by an act of congress in 1988 and required U of A to develop a management plan for the endangered Mount Graham Red Squirrel. Since 1992, the University of Arizona Conservation Research Laboratory has published yearly reports on its website detailing its work to monitor squirrel populations. However, They haven’t posted any reports since 2018.

The L.U.C.I.F.E.R Telescope at the Mount Graham International Observatory.
The L.U.C.I.F.E.R Telescope at the Mount Graham International Observatory. – Photo courtesy of

The new law authorized a “Special Use Authorization” of 150 acres of land and limited development to 25 acres. Three telescopes were immediately built, with two more planned in the future. The Observatory existence is subject to the terms and conditions of a US Fish and Wildlife Biological Opinion dated July 14, 1988. The CBD claims the Biological Opinion is “Politically and religiously motivated.” We cannot find this document anywhere.

The law also recognizes the Old Columbine and the Arizona Bible School special use permits and notates that the permits shall continue for the entire duration. It mentions that while reauthorizing these permits, federal land managers should consult with the US Fish and Wildlife under the ESA requirements and conduct another Biological study.

During this process, the law says that land managers shall consider the small amount of land used by the cabins, work with local representatives from the city of Safford, Arizona, and, upon the denial of a permit, developed a relocation plan for the permit holders.

Furthermore, the law makes the University of Arizona responsible for all financial burdens involving the Mount Graham Red Squirrel management plan, including biological studies.

The Mount Graham Red Squirrel.

The Mount Graham Red Squirrel is a federally protected endangered species found only in the Pinaleno Mountains in southern Arizona. In 1988, there were less than 400 known Squirrels in the range. In 1990 Critical Habitat was designated, giving the rare critter a chance to flourish. In 2016 there was an estimated 252 Red Squirrels. In 2017, the lightning-caused Fry Fire ripped through the area, decimating their numbers and pushing them outside their designated habitat. After the Fry Fire, studies revealed an alarming drop in population to just under 33 Red Squirrels.

The Mount Graham Red Squirrel - Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Zoo
The Mount Graham Red Squirrel – Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Zoo

In 2017 the Center For Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audobon Society petitioned the Forest Service to update the Red Squirrel’s critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. Later in 2019, they sued to compel the Forest Service to act. The Forest Service failed to perform in both instances.

According to the Center For Biological Diversity, the Columbine Recreation Cabins and the Church Camp are “the only substantive restorable habitat and is critically needed to help the squirrels get through the habitat bottleneck.” In November of 2020, they sued the Coronado National Forest, claiming that the Coronado National Forest failed to reinitiate the Endangered Species Act consultation while renewing the Columbine Special Use Permits, including the Church camp. In a press release, the CBD wrote,

The squirrels have found ways to survive the destruction of their habitat, but now there are so many forces aligned against them. Climate change, university astronomers, recreational buildings, and uncaring federal agencies could wipe these little animals off the planet.

A joint study conducted by AZ Game and Fish, Coronado National Forest, US Fish, and Wildlife Service, and the Arizona Center For Nature Conservation in November of 2020 reveals their populations have risen to over 100 individuals since the Fry Fire. The data shows that despite the special use permits, the Mount Graham Red Squirrel is flourishing.

On the contrary

In 1995 world-renowned scientists and mammal expert Robert S. Hoffmann published a book called Storm over a Mountain Island Conservation Biology and the Mt. Graham Affair. In that book, Robert writes,

“While the Mt Graham red squirrel subspecies exhibits only slight phenotypic differences (slightly smaller body size and slightly narrower skull) than other red squirrels found in North America, genetic evidence does not support the distinction of this subspecies.”

In other words, according to Robert’s research, other than physical appearance, the Mount Graham Red Squirrel is no different than the Red Squirrels that are found across Arizona and America. This brings up a serious question. Does the Mount Graham Red Squirrel even meet the requirements for endangered species designation? This whole fiasco could all be null and void if proven so.

The University of Arizona School of Agriculture and Life Science references Roberts’s work in their publication, Natural History of the Mount Graham Red Squirrell. Roberts’s work is also part of the Arizona Public Record in The State of Arizona Research Library.

Old Columbine Camp and Bible Camp users support the permit renewal.

Daryl Weech who is a volunteer firefighter and President of the Columbine Cabin Owners Association responded to the CBDs intent to sue in an article in the Gila Herald. His opinion seems to directly correlate with the scientific data produced by several studies.

“The threat to the population (Red Squirrel) has come from the misdirected attempt to protect them by not allowing logging and manually cleaning up the forest. For many years, the government put out every fire on the mountain as was thought to be the best thing for the forest. We now know that this only resulted in an abnormal buildup of fuel, which results in catastrophic fires.

The environmentalists have added to the situation by the mandate that the squirrels were found in a ‘trashy environment’ and must remain in such conditions to survive.

The thinking has resulted in a major portion of the mountain burning so hot that a good portion is now moonscape. The cabin area and Bible Camp are still green and intact because of the ongoing efforts to mitigate the fuel load in these areas. Several squirrels have historically lived within the tract. Removing the cabins and Bible Camp would result in the forest in this area becoming heavy in burnable fuel and would only be a matter of time before fire would blacken these areas also and be uninhabitable for not only the squirrels but all other wildlife as well.”

He continued,

“The generation that grew up in the late 1930s and 1940s have often commented that at that time, they were able to walk anywhere in the forest as the small fifes would clear the forest floor of fallen trees and excessive duff. Today, we are not able to do so due to the massive accumulation of fuel.

We have proposed for the past 30 years that since the squirrel had to learn to live in the horrible conditions they find themselves in today, due to man, that if we were to clean the forest and restore it to the condition it was in pre-fire suppression days, that the squirrel will adapt back to a beautiful clean forest and thrive.”

It would come as no surprise that many folks have a passion for the Bible Camp and the Old Columbine recreation cabins, especially if it’s part of your family, childhood, and possibly your first outdoor experience. These camps have been allowed to operate for decades, and suddenly because of no fault of their own, they are facing some drastic changes. Several folks submitted comments in favor of The Arizona Church of Christ Bible Camp. One commenter said,

“I have been attending the Bible Camp on Mt. Graham for over a decade. My mother and her siblings went to this camp when they were kids and when I was old enough to go my mom took me there even though we lived in Wyoming. My grandparents and their peers from Oslo Verde church of Christ in Tucson helped build that church and remodel and maintain it. I myself have voluntarily helped remodel and main the camp site including its water tanks, infrastructure and more in the last 5 years. This camp has allowed me to make connections I wouldn’t of been able to otherwise at a young age. The people who come to this site are very respectful to nature and understand that the area belongs to nature and we don’t trash or vandalize it in anyway. I plan on taking my kids here and continue to give my aid and support to those who work it every summer. This camp isn’t like any other. The drive up is unique, the site is amazing with cabins and a mess hall and bathrooms. Everyone who had gone to this site has a personal connection to it. Please consider renewing our permit.”

A financial burden

We contacted the Arizona Church of Christ Bible Camp and conversed with Leonard Taylor, the Bible Camp’s vice-president. Upon this, we learned the Forest Service had put the small church into a terrible situation. Because of the circumstances of the CBD lawsuit, the Mount Graham Red Squirrel, the International Observatory, and the 2017 Fry Fire, the Forest Service requires the Bible Camp to complete an Environmental Assessment before the Forest Service can renew the special use permit.

The Environmental Assessment will cost the Church over $40,000, and it’s not guaranteed the Forest Service will renew the permit. This will open up more public participation and drag this process out for years. The Forest Service is giving them an ultimatum, pay the $40k or give up the camp.

Likewise, the Forest Service requires special use permit holders to remove buildings and restore the natural landscape after the permit is denied or canceled. This process will cost the Church upwards of $50,000 to have the structures removed. It’s an undue and unfair burden.

Here’s what Leonard had to say,

“We have operated a camp on Mt Graham for over 50 years, and are grateful for the opportunity to have done so. Through the years folks have invested considerable money, time, and effort in construction and maintenance of the facility. The camp has been a blessing to countless campers, and has changed lives. Alas, times have changed, and people have difficulty getting the time or extra finances to support the camp. There is not so much interest in a rustic place so far away from civilization, and cell towers. In addition, the 2017 Frye Fire has changed the conditions we operate in, with concern for the Mt Graham Red Squirrel being a major factor. The costs associated with renewing our Special Use Permit are prohibitive, more than our small group can afford. We greatly appreciate all the support and encouragement we have received through the years, but it seems the time has come to let it go. There is a group interested in buying the facilities, and we are working with them and the Forest Service in hopes they can keep the camp going.”

Leonard Taylor

vice-president, Arizona Church of Christ Bible Camp

Final thoughts

There is a lot to take in here. Decades of false science and misleading political agendas are steering the management of the so-called “Mount Graham” Red Squirrell at the expense of our traditional values and historical places. The Church Camp, Old Columbine cabin owners, the University of Arizona, the US Forest Service, and US Fish and Wildlife face undue burdens that ultimately trickle down to us, the individuals. All caused by the perversion of the Endangered Species Act by several environmental groups.

The observatory’s critical research is burdened by the false belief that the Mount Graham Red Squirrell should be protected. Only with an act of Congress and thousands of dollars in legal fees will this issue be resolved. This is a perfect example of why endangered species protection should be handled by the state and local authorities.

What you can do to help

If you wish to help the church with this diabolical issue, you can donate a few dollars to support the Camp. You can also contact your state representatives and the City council of Safford, Arizona, as the law allowing the observatory requires their participation. You can also contact the Graham County border of supervisors. Most importantly, contact our congressmen and express your concern over this issue. Only by demonstrating overwhelming support will this bible camp be able to continue.

Please let us know what you think in the comment section below. 


Kevin Allard
Author: Kevin Allard

Kevin is an American outdoorsman born and raised in rural Arizona who grew up exploring the Arizona backcountry with his father. Today, he and his son travel to the most remote regions of Arizona, scavenging for the remains of early western pioneers. As a lifelong outdoorsman, Kevin has learned to stick close to his roots while engaging in important advocacy work regarding motorized access to public lands. You can find his work in many local and nationwide publications, including The Western Journal, 4Low Magazine, and his website


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