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The Uncertain Future of Mauna Kea

On the dry, dusty drive to the observatories at the summit of Mauna Kea, you’re struck by the stark landscape, by the seemingly lifeless expanse that climbs to the heavens. But there’s also a sense of abundance of something unseen.

When in April the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) decided in favor of the Conservation District Use Permit for the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, it was a serious blow to opponents of the billion-dollar project, in a fight to best protect and preserve what is certainly one of the most unique environments and resources on the planet.

However, the fight continues following an appeal filed with the Third Circuit Court by a Honolulu attorney in May, on behalf of a coalition of private citizens and cultural groups named in the official document, which includes the KAHEA Environmental Alliance and Mauna Kea Anaina Hou. Although the BLNR found that the TMT project has met all of the requirements of the use permit, there remain constitutional and administrative deficiencies in the plan that opponents will not allow to go unchallenged.

At issue is the unseen abundance of the sacred mountain.

The TMT project is backed by a group of respected international scientific research institutions, all keen to utilize Mauna Kea’s proximity to the stars to answer fundamental cosmological questions: How big is our universe? When did it start? When will it end? If or when completed, the TMT will be the most powerful optical/infrared telescope on earth, surpassing even the orbiting Hubble telescope’s capabilities. It offers an inconceivable treasure of knowledge.

The TMT project, and the sophisticated technology behind it, began as an international scientific initiative in the late 1990s. Mauna Kea was chosen over sites in Chile because of existing infrastructure and Mauna Kea’s relative accessibility. There is already a cluster of telescopes at the summit, at least one of which is visible from 40 percent of the Big Island, according to official state documents. There is simply no better place to put the world’s sharpest galactic eye.

The project will also create hundreds of jobs in a Big Island economy that needs them badly.

But Mauna Kea is also a place of worship and reverence, home to hundreds upon hundreds of native Hawaiian sacred sites, a place of profound religious sanctity. Opponents of the TMT argue that the project will violate their constitutional right to practice their religion.

For centuries, Mauna Kea has been the spiritual piko of native Hawaiian people, connecting them to the land and to their past. And it is has already been determined in official government documents to have suffered severe degradation as a result of the construction and operation of the observatories there.

During this battle, Mauna Kea Anaina Hou’s Kealoha Pisciotta has said, “If we say yes to more development, we are saying yes to the desecration of our temple and our ancestors, yes to the destruction of our waters, and yes to the possible extinction of life itself.”

Notably, in his testimony to the BLNR at the February contested case hearing that led to the granting of the use permit, TMT opponent Clarence Ching pointed out that he and the BLNR Chairperson, DLNR Director William, Aila share a common genealogy deeply connected to the land at stake.

Despite its severe, arid environment, Mauna Kea’s summit is a rich ecological system. It is home to numerous, uniquely adapted native plants and creatures that include moths, caterpillars, spiders, and the tiny, predatory wekiu insect, which can survive temperatures far below freezing.

The habitats in which these species thrive are fragile and delicate in the extreme. A single human footfall can cause irreparable harm. The construction of the TMT will irrefutably accelerate the loss of species and habitats that are even now on the brink of extinction.

The appeal filed by opponents to the TMT project appears to have strong legal standing. There are nine charges made. Some of those charges are administrative in nature. For example, the petitioners assert that the legally required Comprehensive Management Plan for the area is invalid.

Strangely, the University of Hawaii Hilo, which holds the lease to the part of the summit for which the TMT is planned, is not among those funding the project itself. It did, however, fund the Comprehensive Management Plan that was pivotal in the BLNR’s decision to grant the now contested use permit.

Perhaps most salient of the charges made in the appeal to the issuance of the use permit for the TMT is that evidence indicates that the project will have a substantial, adverse impact on existing natural and cultural resources on the area in question. This alone could guide the decision of the Third Circuit Court.

The Conservation District Use Permit (CDUP) issued to the TMT project has come with a number of highly specific stipulations. They are intended to preserve and protect the part of the Mauna Kea Science Reserve for which the TMT project is planned.

For its part, the TMT has taken steps to comply with the requirements of the use permit, including investing in education and training programs, adverse-impact mitigation measures, and other outreach efforts to the tune of millions of dollars.

TMT’s Hawaii Site Manager Sandra Dawson says, “The BLNR has found that the TMT project has met all the requirements of the CDUP. We have engaged in a long process of working with the community to develop a good design and operations plan for TMT that meets the requirements. We are working to insure [sic] all conditions have been met, and all mitigation measures identified in the EIS are implemented. We are proceeding with our plans to begin construction in April 2014. We do not have any information about when the Third Circuit may hear the appeal.”

It remains to be determined whether the interests of science and astronomy can coexist with the immeasurably significant natural and cultural resources on Mauna Kea, or if the TMT project will cause irreparable harm to those resources, harm that cannot be mitigated. The legal battle over the future of the summit of Mauna Kea is complicated. It involves many hours of testimony and hundreds of pages of official documents. And the ideologies on each side are sound and valid. The unseen abundance at the summit of Mauna Kea contains the worldview of both sides, and battle between them continues.