Hawaii News — Parallel Realities on Mauna Kea

Kehau Bondallian with daughters Luna, 2, and ‘Ailana, 3 weeks. Photo by David Santiago.

Kehau Bondallian with daughters Luna, 2, and ‘Ailana, 3 weeks. Photo by David Santiago.

By Alan McNarie

“Our stand is not against scientific advancement. Our stand is not against technology or telescopes,” said Jazzmin Cabanilla. “Our stand is not against the science of astronomy. I want to make it clear that our stand is against the location.”

Cabanilla, a young Kanaka Maoli educator and mother of three, was one of scores who testified in April at two University of Hawaii Board of Curators hearings at Hilo on the Thirty Meter Telescope. The TMT’s Web site bills it as the “most advanced and powerful optical telescope on Earth,” though it probably won’t be for long, if ever—there’s an even bigger instrument, appropriately called the Extremely Large Telescope, that’s scheduled for construction in Chile. But the TMT will certainly dwarf anything built on Mauna Kea to date: That 30 meter-wide primary mirror would be housed in an observatory building that’s 217 feet in diameter and 180 feet high; add the administrative building and parking area, and you’re talking a facility equivalent to a fair-size a resort hotel. By comparison, he twin primary mirrors of Mauna Kea’s W. M. Keck Telescopes, the world’s largest until edged out by Spain’s Gran Telescopio Canarias in 2009, are only 8 meters in diameter, housed in eight-story-tall-domes—although the TMT Web site claims that the telescope’s total five-acre “area of disturbance” would be about the same as that of the Keck complex.

TMT controversy, for some, has been characterized as a battle between Western science and Kanaka Mapli religion, as fact-finding vs. the mystic “sacred.” And for some, it does seem to boil down to that; one protester’s sign proclaimed, “BULLDOZE YOUR OWN TEMPLE.” But as Cabarilla’s statement pointed out, for many, it’s not that simple. Nor is it simply a conflict between Kanaka Maoli and haoles. Big Island Video News, for instance, recently ran a story about Mailani Neal, a Hawaii Preparatory Academy senior of Kanaka Maoli descent who started an online petition in favor of the TMT. And the protesters on the mountain have included environmentalists and social justice advocates of all races.

The conflict on Mauna Kea might be more accurately portrayed as a clash between people who see the same place through the tinted shades of different values and perspectives. Some value mainly the earth; others see mainly the sky. Some pay attention what’s already there and unique, such as the wekiu bug, a tiny weevil that lives only on the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa; others value possibility and potential. Some see dollar signs—one of the TMT’s biggest boosters has been the local construction industry—but others seek something more ethereal, such as knowledge or beauty.

Both the telescope builders (and their University of Hawaii landlord), admire the “view” on Mauna Kea and acknowledge that it needs to be protected.

The Environmental Impact Statement for the TMT contains a detailed account of efforts to protect “view planes,” for instance, so that the new telescope cannot be seen from various culturally significant landmarks on the mountaintop, including the actual summit. TMT project head Sandra Dawson also notes one of the reasons why the TMT planners chose its site, a barren lava plateau 646 feet lower than the summit, was to minimize the telescopes’ effect on those view planes, as well as to make it less visible from the coast.  But she also notes that the main reason the TMT’s backers want it on Mauna Kea is the view—in this case, upward.

“Mauna Kea is a special place and a treasure,” she acknowledges, but adds,” Above the mountain is something very, very special also, and that’s the skies.” Of all the new generation of giant telescopes, she says, only the TMT will be in the Northern Hemisphere, making its vieew of the heavens unique.

Sometimes the law itself ranks values, as Kealoha Pisciotta points out. Pisciotta is head of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, which has been fighting telescope development for decades. Pisciotta rold the Chronicle that while the values of the mountaintop as a conservation area and the rights of Kanaka Maoli as native practitioners are protected by law, the right to build telescopes was not. Like any construction on the mountaintop, she says, the TMT “has to run the gauntlet for all these levels of protection, and it’s failing.” The mountaintop, she maintains, is first and foremost a conservation area:  “The sub-use -[telescopes]cannot overrule the primary use of conservation.”  The state has eight criteria for the uses of conservation land, she says, and the TMT cannot even meet the first of those: “They cannot demonstrate that it will not have a significant environmental impact.”

Perhaps because of debatable words such as “significant,” the TMT’s backers look at the same facts and boast that their telescope is “eight for eight” in meeting those criteria.

One of the biggest challenges that the TMT faces is overcoming a long history of alleged bad faith and mismanagement by the university and previous telescope operators. A coalition of environmental and Kanaka Maoli organizations have taken the state and the University to court repeatedly, and often successfully, over alleged violations of state law. Pisciotta and others have documented spills of mercury, sewage, propylene glycol and a chemical solution used to clean mirrors by the observatories.  Legal challenges have forced the university to adapt a new management plan for the mountaintop, but opponents say the plan that the university came up with blatantly favors the telescopes over other legitimate users of the mountain—allowing activities by others only when they didn’t interfere with the telescopes’ schedules, for instance. At one hearing, the Sierra Club’s Deborah Ward testified that the resource management plan that the Office of Mauna Kea Management’s Environmental Committee had worked on for years had been “expunged without explanation” from the new management plan. Among the expunged recommendations was a requirement for several important studies, including a baseline inventory of natural resources that had been called for as early as 1983.

The Kanaka Maoli-environmentalist coalition currently has another lawsuit at the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals that could affect TMT’s sublease. The university rents the mountain from the state for a dollar a year, and then subleases space to the telescopes for a similar token fee—a practice that some Kanaka Maoli and other residents have long argued violates law; cheating native Hawaiians and the state’s residents in general out of revenue from Ceded Lands. In part because the TMT’s life expectancy would go beyond the expiration of the  university’s current master lease , UH has applied for a long-term lease renewal, but an earlier challenge had forced the University to commission an environmental impact statement before getting a long term extension of its lease. That EIS is still not completed, yet the university has still gone on with its new sublease to the TMT.  So far, a contested case hearing officer and a circuit court judge have ruled in favor of the university, but the opposing coalition has vowed to take the case to the State Supreme Court, if necessary.

“We have a right to take it [the group’s appeal] to the highest court of the land. Until that process is over, they don’t have a legitimate lease,” contends Pisciotta.

Dawson maintains that the TMT is trying hard to meet many of these issues head-on.

“We didn’t bully our way in and say, ‘This is what we’re doing,’” she says. “We spent seven years talking to wide variety of people before we even started construction.” She points to the 14 public meetings that the TMT held in order to create its own EIS for the project: “We went all over the island. We were in Hawi, we were in Puna, we were everywhere.”

The consortium has agreed to ship all its wastewater back down the mountain in order to protect the aquifer. And it’s paying rent. Starting with starting at $300,000 last year and ramping up to a million dollars a year after the telescope begins operating. Eighty percent of the rent money, Dawson said, will be spent on conservation programs for the mountaintop; the remainder rwill go to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. In addition to the rent, the TMT consortium has committed to at least $1.5 million annually for two programs, the Work Force Pipeline and The Hawaii Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund, which will funnel money to various state and nonprofit agencies to educate Big Island youth for high-tech jobs.

But still, there’s that religious issue.

“Tradition tells us that access to the summit was limited to high chiefs and priests, where prayers could be offered in the utmost reverence to their gods” acknowledges the TMT’s own EIS. How can the TMT bridge that gap with that the kanaka waving the ‘BULLDOZE YOUR OWN TEMPLE” sign?

Dawson admits that that’s tough. But she says she’s trying. On her first visit  to Mauna Kea, she says, she went with a kupuna to various sacred sites on the mountain, where her guide had her present white roses to the gods and introduced her to them. She talks about a traditional Hawaiian navigator who compared the telescopes to canoes, instruments for voyaging to the stars.

But if there’s ever to be compromise to these warring perspectives, these parallel realities on the mountaintop, it may lie in another common value: humility.

“One of the key values of Hawaiian culture is humility. We are not encouraged to speak in haughty ways or to put others down for our own selfish purposes,” writes Pisciotta, in an online piece that ironically accuses the telescopes’ supporters of doing just that. But perhaps the most valuable lesson that astronomy has taught us is our place in the universe. Before Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter and found moons circling around it, humans thought the entire universe circled around us. Before the great telescopes of the 20th Century taught us better, we thought ours was the only galaxy. Now we know that it’s only one among billions, and that our entire planet is only a relative s speck of dust whirling around an unremarkable star in an inconsequential galaxy in an incredibly vast universe.

It’s easy to see the TMT as enormous. But compared to Mauna Kea, even the TMT is a tiny thing. Compared to the universe, even Mauna Kea is a tiny thing. Compared to all of them, the wekiu bug is a tiny, tiny thing. But those are only perspectives. In some perspective, all of them are important. If there’s a solution to the problem on the mountain, it may involve finding that perspective.

Alan McNarie’s bio is on page 2.

1 reply
  1. Guenther Hasinger
    Guenther Hasinger says:

    Many thanks for your perspectives in this article. There is one statement, however, which requires correction. The mirrors of the Keck telescope are 10 meters in diameter, and are housed in domes of about 30 meters in diameter and height. Compared to that, the 30 meter telescope sits in a dome of 66 meters diameter and 55 meter height, i.e. a much more compact construction. By the way, the tallest telescope on the mountain is currently the 8-meter Gemini with a dome height of 45 meters. The 30 meter telescope is only 20% taller than this, but much less visible.

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