I used to get really angry every time the Tribune ran an editorial about an endangered species. Their usual slant on efforts to prevent the extermination of one of earth’s unique genetic combinations was “What the heck, we’ve got millions of them. Is anybody really going to notice if we lose one?”

By the time I had read 750 words of closely reasoned argument leading up to that conclusion, I was likely to be waving my arms and hollering. I figured that if you showed the average Tribune editorial writer a picture of a donkey and a picture of the Grand Canyon, nine times out of ten he wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.

Then on October 1, just two days after Yom Kippur, the Trib announced its decision on who should live and who should die. And the red squirrels on Arizona’s Mount Graham didn’t make the cut.

The Mount Graham squirrels are a distinctive subspecies of a wide-ranging arboreal rodent that lives in coniferous woods across the northern part of the continent from Newfoundland to Alaska. In the western mountains, it follows its favored habitat south all the way to southern Arizona. At that latitude, spruce-fir forests grow only on the high mountains where altitude provides the necessary cool climate.

Red squirrel populations in southern Arizona are scattered, separated by lower-altitude areas where scrub, grassland, and desert vegetation are dominant and where the squirrels can’t live. Mount Graham, which is 10,720 feet high, is the southernmost outpost of the species.

But the construction of an astronomical observatory on the mountaintop could cause the subspecies’s demise. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, acting for a consortium of environmental groups, has filed a lawsuit that has temporarily halted construction.

My knee-jerk response to cases like this is to support the squirrels against the astronomers. But this time I decided not to get angry. I figured I owed at least a little dispassionate consideration to the arguments of a rich and powerful newspaper, no matter how numbingly stupid they were. So here, as near as I can understand it, is the Tribune’s case for regarding the telescope as more important than the squirrels.

The international scientific consortium–it includes the German Max Planck Institute, the Vatican Observatory, the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory of Florence, and several American institutions–picked Mount Graham because of its clear skies, clean air, and distance from urban glare. The array of telescopes would include the world’s largest. It would expand our knowledge of the universe and maintain American preeminence in astronomy. The Tribune’s first argument, then, is that human rights should take precedence over animal rights in this case.

Second, the squirrels are little different from other populations of the species, which means they aren’t worth saving. But that’s irrelevant if you believe their third argument: there is “no evidence that this project will threaten [their] survival.”

Finally, the Tribune argues, the battle is not really about squirrels; it is about the hidden agenda of various environmentalists, who oppose all human progress. Somewhere there may be somebody who really cares about these squirrels, they say, but nobody involved with the lawsuit does. If environmentalists don’t drop the suit, they may win it, but they will lose so much public sympathy they may wish they hadn’t.

To analyze this argument, we should start with the most basic question: are the squirrels worth saving? Not every population of every animal is, especially when the animal is widespread and common.

But the Mount Graham squirrels have some special qualifications. As I said, they are the southernmost population of their species. Mount Graham is part of an isolated range that is separated from more northerly peaks by considerable stretches of scrub, grassland, and desert. Mount Graham is as much an island to the small mammals, reptiles, and insects who live there as the Galapagos are to marine iguanas and tortoises.

Islands, isolated populations at the edge of a species’s range, are often sources of evolutionary innovation. Wiping out a population forecloses on all the possibilities, all unknowable future developments.

The fauna of Mount Graham, the whole assemblage of animals in its high-altitude spruce-fir forests, is unique. It combines northern creatures with tropical species mostly found in Mexico. In Ontario, the local red squirrels share their woods with fiery orange Blackburnian warblers. On Mount Graham, they live with red-faced warblers and olive warblers, Mexican species living at the northern edge of their range.

There are some people with knowledge of the case who think the observatory will harm the squirrels. This question, as they say, is for the courts to decide–with the aid of whatever expert testimony and additional evidence the courts think necessary. It is not an issue that can be settled by a priori arguments.

To me, the most mysterious aspect of the Tribune’s argument is the charge that environmentalists are claiming to be worried only about the squirrel, when clearly they are really thinking about keeping development away from all of the forest’s life forms. I do not understand how anybody can treat the larger issue–that you protect the squirrel by protecting the forest–like some sort of guilty secret. Protecting the diversity of life on earth means protecting the earth’s diverse ecosystems, the places that provide homes for living things. There is nothing hidden about this agenda. It applies with equal logic to tropical forests, redwoods, tall-grass prairies, and spruce-fir forests isolated by altitude.

The Tribune argues that we need to weigh the interests of nature against human interests. I’ve always thought that our relationship to nature was as a part to the whole. It is true that central heat, pavement, vaccinations, and other innovations have removed many of us from any direct contact with the natural world. And that decisions about whether we live or die, prosper or perish, are more often made by white guys in suits than by any natural agency.

But every mouthful of food we eat is produced by natural processes. Often we have shaped those processes for our benefit, but they are natural nonetheless. The air we breathe is mostly the exhalation of microscopic plants floating in the world ocean. And the planet we live on was only saved from the infernal heat of Venus and the icy death of Mars by animate nature.

Meanwhile, the human rights-versus-animal rights scale looks a bit skewed to me. We have already destroyed 90 percent of the old-growth forests in the Pacific northwest. Only 10 percent remain for the spotted owl and other species that depend on mature forests. Yellowstone National Park and its wilderness environs form the only fully functioning terrestrial ecosystem remaining in the North Temperate Zone. Here in Illinois, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of our native prairies survive. I could go on for several pages, but the point is, if the Tribune doesn’t consider 90 percent for us and 10 percent for the rest of nature balanced, then is there any point short of an all-to-nothing split that will satisfy us? Doesn’t a sensible interpretation of the idea of balance require us to learn to live without taking up so much space and so many of the earth’s resources?

And in this context, just what do phrases like animal rights and human rights mean? The Tribune seems to assert that we have a right to risk the extinction of a unique life form and the destruction of a scientifically interesting ecosystem in order to advance our scientific knowledge in other areas. And if science doesn’t convince you, how about national prestige? What if we lose our preeminence in astronomy? The Germans are threatening to locate the observatory in Chile. What if our unemployed astronomers end up working at McDonald’s and plastering their cars with pathetic “Gaze American” bumper stickers?

If we have the right to destroy whole races of living things for reasons of economics or science or national prestige, what rights do the animals have? If their very existence–not as individuals but as whole populations–is subordinate to our convenience, what are they left with beyond the right to stay out of our way?

We need to recognize that for all our talk about the planet, environmentalism is really about preserving human beings. If the worst of the greenhouse predictions come true–if every port city in the world is flooded, if the midwest becomes a desert–human beings will suffer horribly. But the planet won’t care. It has been that hot before. The creatures of the beaches and tidal pools will just move inland with the shoreline. And cactus, mesquite, road runners, and sidewinders will have millions of acres of choice new habitat to occupy.

Believers in the free market have long held that socialism can’t work because no group of fallible, limited human beings can manage something as complex as an economy. But nature makes an industrial economy look as simple as a game of checkers. When we destroy pieces of that complexity in the service of our “interests” or “rights,” we may set processes in motion whose ultimate effects will do us as much harm as we have done the squirrels.