Exploring the timeline leading up to the ‘Conflict on Mauna Kea’

Updated: Jul. 12, 2019 at 5:20 PM HST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - We’ve been here before: a divisive debate, putting an undeniably unique place in the conflicting cross-hairs of technology vs. tradition.

“I think we were surprised that these new voices appeared a couple of years ago,” TMT’s Executive Director, Ed Stone, told Hawaii News Now back in 2016. “Which were not there during the six years of activity that we’ve had talking to the community.”

On one side, a telescope ― with hopes of revealing the origins of life itself, along with unknown scientific treasures.

On the other, a group who says they are protecting a Hawaiian culture that is under constant attack, as well as the religious freedoms of Native Hawaiians.

“We’re not against TMT. We’re not against them building it. What we’re against is them building it in this particular area, on this particular mountain,” said activist Kahookahi Kanuha, during a 2015 protest. “It should go to a place where the people of that place want it.”

Plans for the telescope’s construction have opened up Pandora’s Box, and many expect demonstrators to try and halt the project. But the telescope controversy has also led to broader discussions about both respect for indigenous rights ― and the pursuit of scientific progress.

“We have to draw the lines in the sand, say no, no more already,” telescope opponent Walter Ritte said. “You already have 13 telescopes, and now you’re going to put a giant one up there. This is the beginning of another Waikiki up our sacred mountain.”

Hawaii Governor David Ige is a supporter of the project.

“This is not an oil pipeline,” Ige said. “It is a telescope, to look into the very origins of life and the universe.”

Scientists claim the Thirty Meter Telescope will allow us to understand why we are here on this planet, and why the properties of the universe are the way they are.

From its base on the ocean floor to its summit above the clouds, Mauna Kea measures more than 32,000 feet ― technically making it the highest mountain in the world.

The summit is located roughly 14,000 feet above sea level, which makes the conditions ideal for observatories like TMT. The crisp, clean air ― and lack of light pollution ― already allows 13 telescopes at the top of the mountain to view some of the universe’s most-distant galaxies.

Yet despite the observatories, and the fact that it receives thousands of visitors every year, the mountain remains a special place for native Hawaiians and many others.

“To many, it is a sacred and religious place. It is a temple,” said Native Hawaiian activist Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu. “It is also a place where some of our ancestors lay at rest.”

In contemporary use, we often see Mauna Kea used as two words ― but many Hawaiian language experts actually believe it’s just one.

Mauna Kea is likely based on an American English spelling variation, instead of traditional Hawaiian. It’s also likely based on a myth associated with the often snow-covered summit: that Maunakea literally means “white mountain.”

But historians say the single-word version is actually short for Mauna a Wakea, the mountain's original name.

“Wakea,”sometimes translated as “Sky Father,” is considered the father of the Hawaiian people. In ancient times, the mountain’s summit was considered the realm of the gods.

It was kapu ― a forbidden place ― for all but the highest chiefs and priests.

Tensions over the telescopes atop Mauna Kea are nothing new.

Protests against construction have been going on there for decades, and older, existing observatory buildings are easily seen from many parts of the island.

But now enters the Thirty Meter Telescope, a proposed observatory with an extremely large telescope that has become the source of controversy over its planned location.

The TMT will be a much larger and more extensive facility than any observatory that’s come before it. Its design calls for a dome that’s 180 feet tall, about the same height as Aloha Tower on Oahu.

The dome’s diameter measures 216 feet, with a shutter ― the opening for the telescope to peer through ― measuring about 100 feet wide.

And that’s all on top of a structure built to support the dome that stands 25 feet high.

So what makes this telescope, with its billion-dollar price tag, so special? In 2000, astronomers began considering the potential of new, state-of-the-art telescopes as large as 30 meters in diameter.

Scientists at the University of California and Caltech began the development of a design that would eventually become known as the TMT. Consisting of 492 segmented mirrors, the telescope would eventually be branded nine times more powerful than its nearest rival, the Keck telescope ― which is also located atop Mauna Kea.

The Keck telescope was the first segmented mirror telescope. The mirror at that facility is made up of 36 segments, and they’re all locked together to make a single surface.

By comparison, the TMT requires roughly 400 segments.

Scientist say it’s big enough that it can help scientists make the next leap in terms of our understanding of the physical universe, while not being so big as to be unbuildable.

For the most part, the crowded nature of Mauna Kea's summit is what's behind the conflict.

For much of the indigenous population in Hawaii, sacredness is not just a concept ― it’s a feeling of connectedness with nature and spirit, particularly when it comes to Mauna Kea.

“They have not listened to the Hawaiian people and the cries that this is a sacred mountain,” said Ritte. “They think that this is a scientific mountain and they have every right to do what they’re doing and the Hawaiians are saying no this is a sacred mountain. Go do your science, but don’t do it on our sacred mountain.”

The cultural clash over TMT began dominating the headlines in 2015, after a large protest halted construction by preventing access to the site, but tensions over project date back further than that.

Cultural practitioners who say they stand in protection of Mauna Kea, as a sacred Native Hawaiian site, have been protesting telescope development on the mountain since it first began in the 1960s.

While the state Land Department is in charge of overseeing conservation land, like Mauna Kea, the University of Hawaii has been leasing the land for their astronomy program since 1967. The university’s agreement with the DLNR allows them to sub-lease it to others.

OHA trustee Dan Ahuna has said this debate is not about a single telescope.

“This is not about Hawaiian culture vs. science,” Ahuna said. “This is 100% about the state and U.H. failing the mauna.”

In 2003, TMT officials started an extensive five-year scout of the sites at Mauna Kea, Chile and Mexico.

They picked Mauna Kea in 2009, because it’s above about 40 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. And the climate is stable, dry and cold.

The next year, Gov. Linda Lingle signed the environmental impact statement. In 2014, a circuit judge ruled in favor of the telescope in an early legal challenge, and the summit site was blessed in October.

In March of 2015, the state gave the project the notice to proceed on construction, but later that month, demonstrators blocked the road to the summit and arrests were made.

More were taken into custody in June.

Those events also inspired people to protest another telescope project on Haleakala on Maui.

More legal challenges to TMT started at the Hawaii Supreme Court in August. The challenges eventually led to the construction permit being revoked, when the justices found that the state’s permitting process was flawed.

In the face of demonstrations and legal threats to the project, TMT officials had to start considering other options.

In March of 2016, they selected La Palma in the Canary Islands as an alternative site, as a contested case hearing got underway. Those lasted into 2017.

But the Hawaii Supreme Court overruled all legal opposition to the project in October of last year. In June, the state issued the project the “notice to proceed.”

The very next day, prayer altars that had been erected on the mountain were taken down.

“They were removed because they were located right where TMT is going to be constructed, so they had to be removed,” Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors said.

One person was arrested in that incident, and we began to see the temperature gauge rise again.

Then came the announcement that construction will begin July 15th.

As the issue becomes more emotionally charged, there's no telling what we will see unfold in the coming days and weeks.

“We have followed a 10-year process to get to this point,” Governor Ige said. “The date for construction to begin has arrived.”

Mauna Kea is said to be the meeting point between sky and earth ― a temple built by the divine, and a source of Hawaii’s ties to creation itself.

But how you interpret that phrase depends on which position you align with. Technology or tradition? What is sacred, against what is scientific ― and which is worth more to you?

Copyright 2019 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.