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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 10, 2003

Science, culture clash over Mauna Kea expansion

 •  Study of stars leaves Hawaiian at odds
 •  Graphic (opens in new window): The science of stargazing on Mauna Kea

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — For decades the needs of science trumped cultural and environmental concerns as astronomers dotted the Mauna Kea summit with 13 observatories, making it the top spot for land-based star-gazing.

For decades, astronomers have flocked to Mauna Kea to search the skies with some of the most powerful telescopes on the planet. But opposition to further development on the 13,796-foot mountain peak is growing.

Advertiser library photo • Jan. 24, 2002

But opposition to further development on the 13,796-foot mountain is growing more rigid, and a contested case hearing today in Hilo over a plan to install a series of "outrigger" telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory is likely to be followed closely by astronomers around the globe worried that community resistance may block future projects atop Mauna Kea.

The Board of Land and Natural Resources hearing on NASA's application for a conservation district use permit is expected to focus on environmental and cultural issues such as possible harm to the mountaintop habitat of the endangered wekiu bug, and evidence of mercury spills and human waste disposal in an area of the summit Hawaiians regard as sacred.

"I think that they're worried that our concerns are valid," said Kealoha Pisciotta, a critic of the $50 million outrigger telescope project who wants an environmental impact statement completed. "I think what it's going to come down to is, they're worried that potential observatories that want to come out here, they might think, 'My goodness, do we want to do litigation?' "

So far, no astronomy project has been canceled because of community opposition, but "this may be that case that would be the model," said Ed Stevens, who sits on Kahu Ku Mauna, a panel of cultural resource experts that advises the board responsible for managing the summit area. "It may be looked at as starting a precedent, perhaps on the astronomy side, about new concerns for future plans."

Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, director of the University of Hawai'i's Institute for Astronomy, said some astronomers are indeed awaiting the results of the contested case hearing and how it may impact future activities atop Mauna Kea.

"My response is we have to work much harder now and we have a greater responsibility, but if we do it right I think there is a very exciting future ahead," Kudritzki said.

To maintain its position as the world's top astronomy site, scientists must be able to place new technology for space study on the mountain, Kudritzki said. And that means more construction, whether it is on undeveloped ground or involves rebuilding older observatories.

UH began developing the summit of Mauna Kea — "White Mountain" in Hawaiian — for astronomy in the 1960s, and now there are 13 observatories there operated by a total of 11 countries. More major telescopes are on Mauna Kea than on any other mountain peak.

UH leases from the state essentially all the land above the 12,000-foot elevation, except for the portions that lie within the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve. The leased land is known as the Mauna Kea Science Reserve.

Management of the summit area is the responsibility of the Office of Mauna Kea Management in Hilo, which was established in 2000 by UH-Hilo Chancellor Rose Tseng, who also formed the Mauna Kea Management Board to oversee the office.

Taking into consideration respect for Hawaiian cultural beliefs, protection of environmentally sensitive habitat, recreational use of the mountain, and astronomy research activities, the board developed the Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan, which was later adopted by the UH Board of Regents. The plan establishes management guidelines for the next 20 years.

To many Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is a sacred place. To them, construction on the summit is seen as a desecration of their deeply held cultural and spiritual beliefs.

To environmentalists, the summit is the habitat of the wekiu, a quarter-inch-long insect that lives in cinders, and other unique creatures such as native wolf spiders and moths. The wekiu has experienced a dramatic drop in its population since the early 1980s, and Nelson Ho of the Sierra Club said a fragile web of other life forms that exist in the seemingly barren summit area also deserves to be protected.

The proposed Keck project would add up to six new 6-foot telescopes around the existing Keck I and Keck II 33-foot telescopes, which are the world's largest optical/infrared telescopes. Each outlying telescope would be housed in domes 30 feet wide and 35 feet high. By comparison, the Keck domes are 121 feet in diameter and 111 feet high.

The new telescopes would boost the observatory's light-gathering capability and are a key part of NASA's Origins Program to study how stars and planetary systems form, and whether habitable planets exist around nearby stars.

State and federal environmental assessments were completed for the project, and the Institute for Astronomy concluded last year that no environmental impact statement was necessary because the project would have no significant effect on the environment if mitigating measures are followed.

Astronomers were taken aback by the level of anger expressed during two days of public hearings last March on NASA's request for a permit for the Keck project. Opponents demanded a study of the impact of astronomy on the mountain, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs sued in federal court to get it done.

That lawsuit is pending, and a loose alliance of Native Hawaiian and environmental interests are marshaling forces behind the contested case process, which is similar to a court trial, to block the project.

Bill Stormont, director of the Office of Mauna Kea Management, said the Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan allows for renovations to five of the 13 observatories as they become obsolete, and for three new developments. He said the Keck outrigger telescopes do not count against those limits.

Kudritzki said that atmospheric and other conditions on Mauna Kea are so well-suited for astronomy that requests for new facilities on the summit are all but inevitable.

"It is so good that, of course, for the very best projects in the world, which are also scientifically the most ambitious ones, people hope that they can do such projects on Mauna Kea," he said.

Stevens said the astronomers are asking the community to compromise, but a "compromise" that allows for additional construction will be hard to accept. "Right now the score is 13 to zero," he said. "If the score was even, then you can talk compromise."

UH administrators and the officials who manage the mountain are clearly more sensitive to community concerns than they were in the past, Stevens said, but the people who press for new astronomy development focus so intently on their own goals that they lose sight of other issues.

"It's a noble thing, a noble profession; we have nothing against that," Stevens said. "I think probably the biggest issue is we feel they have taken the whole mountaintop, and they're still wanting more. We're saying, 'You've got enough of our mountain, and rather than to continue to take more, make better use of what you've got.' "

Tseng, the UH-Hilo chancellor, said she hopes the relatively new management system will lead to more cooperation.

"I think we can do it by compromising and work it out what's the best way," she said. "Not expanding (the astronomy facilities) too much, but what's the best way to get the scientific research done without causing more damage to the mountain.

"Nobody's really bad; I don't think everybody's really bad in this case. So maybe everybody will say, 'What's the big fight? Why don't we just compromise?' I hope these people will finally see that."

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.