In The Desert, Big Trouble Under Glass

IT COULDN'T HAVE BEEN EASY CREATing the heavens and earth and all that dwell therein-especially in a mere six days-but it must have been a whole lot less aggravating than constructing the mini-earth in the Arizona desert called Biosphere 2. If nothing else, God had fewer kibitzers. Biosphere 2, the glass-and-steel dome begun in 1987 that is equal parts New Age glitz and struggling science, has more critics than it does oh-so-P.C. cans of Rainforest Crunch in its nearby gift shop. Now it has a few other things that the original Creation didn't have: two alleged saboteurs, felony arrests and federal marshals brandishing court orders.

The legal fireworks last week were sparked by Texas oil billionaire Ed Bass, who has bankrolled the $150 million experiment-cum-tourist-attraction. He asked a federal court in Ft. Worth to dissolve the partnership between the financial arm of Biosphere 2, which he controls, and its managing arm, run by the controversial team of Margaret Augustine and John Allen. In an affidavit Bass states, "Though conceived as a profit-making venture, Biosphere 2 ... is currently requiring substantial cash funding." Other affidavits describe "threatening and irrational" behavior by some of the managers, who had hooked up with the eccentric Texan on a New Mexico commune in the 1970s. All of this was enough to persuade the court to place the partnership's assets-primarily the 3.15-acre terrarium complete with desert, ocean, rain forest, savanna and marshland-under the control of receivers. Together with federal marshals, they swooped down on Biosphere 2 on Good Friday and barred Augustine, Allen and three other top managers from the premises.

But the Biospherians were not about to go quietly. Last week someone breached four of the five sealed doors to the dome which is supposed to be isolated from the outside world-and smashed several glass panes. Abigail Alling, one of the eight original "crew members" who spent two years sealed in the dome (emerging last September), claimed she and another crewman, Mark Van Thillo, were responsible. But she denied that their actions constituted sabotage. "Key managers for the health and safety of the Biosphere were removed and replaced with a private force of police and bankers," Alling said. "I've acted for the safety of the Biosphere." The county sheriff's department didn't see it that way. For one thing, the engineers who monitor Biosphere 2 day to day were still at their posts, and the seven crewmen now spending several months to a year inside were free to walk out whenever they wished. The sheriff charged Alling and Van Thillo with burglary, trespassing and criminal damage and released them on $25,000 bail each.

If Bass was unhappy about finances, others blamed Allen and Augustine for blocking legitimate science in Biosphere 2. Dr. Roy Walford of the University of California, Los Angeles, another of the original crew, says that Allen and Augustine ran "a militaristic organization-hierarchical and authoritarian -not really attuned to the nature of science. We couldn't form a community inside because of intervention from Margaret and John [outside the dome], who tried to run everything, including our lives. They tried to control who we could talk to on the outside and what we did every night." Other researchers say science got sideswiped by Augustine and Allen's ideology. Early on, University of Arizona ecologists warned against filling Biosphere 2's habitats with soil high in organic matter such as bacteria. But the managers, devotees of organic gardening, insisted on the rich mix. It was a mistake. During the first crew's tenure, oxygen levels plummeted 33 percent. The culprit: soil microbes. They respired gobs of carbon dioxide, which was absorbed by the dome's concrete rather than broken down into oxygen. To rescue the oxygen-starved crew, engineers pumped in tons of the gas, violating the principle that the dome be a self-sustaining, closed system.

Similar disputes with Augustine and Allen, who could not be reached for comment, led Biosphere 2's science advisory board to resign en masse last year. "Management thinks it knows more science than it does," Walford told NEWSWEEK. "But they don't understand that in doing science you have to be asking a particular question, not just collecting a lot of random data. They have been [called] environmental zealots, and I think that's true." Arizona's Robert Frye, who served on the board and whose advice to use the low-organic soil was rejected, agrees. "Margaret simply refuses to have any formal relationship with a university," he says. "That had a very deleterious effect on the research."

The turmoil in the desert, 35 miles north of Tucson, comes just when Biosphere 2 seemed to be gaining its scientific footing. Although the project got slammed for pumping in the oxygen, there is no denying that eight people did manage to stay alive, and healthy, for two years. They grew 80 percent of their food (they had to dig into stockpiles when the farm produced less-than-bumper crops), recycled waste into fertilizer, breathed recycled air and drank recycled water. The ocean, marsh, farm, savanna and rain forest all "worked." The Biospherians even published in respectable scientific journals--including papers on the effect of their low-fat diet on their cholesterol levels and weight, and on restoring marshlands. Last year the project took a step toward credibility by hiring as scientific director John Corliss, an old NASA hand who promised to bring rigor and openness to the experiment. And, backing away from the gimmick of bottling up crewmen for years, the current crew will stay inside for staggered periods, with outside scientists visiting for a few weeks each.

Still, Biosphere 2 is plagued by its jarring hybridization of science and ecokitsch. World-class researchers designed the five biomes, but they are just a glass wall away from the souvenir stands peddling $17 T shirts. UCLA's Walford is a respected researcher of aging, but Augustine, Allen and other managers and crew have less stellar scientific credentials. And Allen was dogged by allegations that he had headed a religious cult. Indeed, last week Alling's mother told her local Maine newspaper that her daughter, who left her 3-year-old son behind during her stay in the dome, is "a victim of mind control. The people who have all been kicked out are members of a cult."

Biosphere 2 was supposed to last a century, revealing how earth's ecosystems work and teaching engineers how to, one day, build habitations on Mars. AR of that is now in jeopardy. But Arizona authorities recently gave Bass the go-ahead to develop 3,000 acres around the dome, complete with an airport, a campground, a light-manufacturing complex and a research center. Since their success depends on the magnet of Biosphere 2, Bass is expected to keep the world under glass up and running. But taking some time to figure out whether it should exemplify glitzy tourism or pioneering research wouldn't be a bad idea. Even God took a day off.