By Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd
Many of my friends are opposed to the construction of TMT. While I can appreciate their angst over not just TMT but a host of cultural issues, I stand on the other side. Astronomy has brought world-class scientists to the island. One from Scotland lived down the street from us. Another had children attending Kaumana Elementary. They along with other astronomers, paid rent, spent their money in local stores and restaurants. They mentored students in our local schools in the sciences, astronomy, and robotics. They volunteered and helped in our science fairs.
There are people arguing that astronomy has not contributed anything to our local community but contribution cannot be measured in just dollars and cents and jobs the industry created in construction or ongoing maintenance. The contribution that these scientists make in education both at the university and in our schools is part of the equation too. Since I was a young student in the ‘60s, the mantra has been the need to diversify our economy, to get away from reliance on not just tourism, sugar cane, or the military.
One of the drives to diversify was to expand UH Hilo from a two-year campus to four years, to add additional areas of study, to build a university town, to strive for academic excellence, to urge our children to reach for the stars. UH Hilo today is a far cry from what it was when I went there in the ‘70s. Many of the same educators that fought to have Hawaiian language and Hawaiian history taught at UH Hilo also fought to expand other programs like computer science, mathematics, physics, pharmacy and, yes, astronomy because they wanted our young people to have educational opportunity and options. And our children have benefitted from that vision.
Are there moments that I wish there were no observatories and I could see both mountains without any construction or the roads that were built to support astronomy on them? Yes. Just as there are moments that I wish we had not become a state and seen the masses of people that have moved or visited here. And I often yearn for the days when Queen Kaahumanu Highway did not exist and I hiked the coast and I and my companions were the only ones at Kua Bay.
But “progress has allowed people who didn’t have access to locked jeep trails on private land that led to places like Makalawena, Kua, Maniniowali, Anaeho’omalu, Mahaiula, and Brown’s to share these places too. And “progress” has provided opportunities that I could not envision for my children. I am hoping that “progress” will provide jobs here so our sons and daughters getting advanced degrees in the sciences on the mainland can come home to live and work where they were raised.
Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd is the County of Hawaii Environmental Management director. She has also served as the planning director and as a councilwoman representing Hilo.