Mauna Kea can yield scientific, cultural gifts
It's disappointing to hear — though not entirely unexpected — that funding has been cut for the proposed "outrigger" telescope expansion atop Mauna Kea, sidelining that project for the foreseeable future. Budgetary constraints and changing spending priorities at NASA recently have led to the cancellation of numerous projects on the books, agencywide.
But this must not end enhancements to Hawai'i's achievements in astronomy. Owing to the crystalline air quality above the mountain peak, the negligible light interference and the international community already engaged in scientific pursuits at the summit, astronomy is one of the fields in which the state can claim pre-eminence.
The most promising avenue would be the opportunity to host the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, a state-of-the-art system that would enable astronomers to reach a new milestone: watching planets orbit distant stars.
To their credit, elected officials and University of Hawai'i administrators have been persistently lobbying for Mauna Kea's selection as the site for the telescope, a decision to be made as early as next year by an international consortium. Among the other leading contenders is a site in Chile.
The outrigger telescope proposed at Mauna Kea has been hobbled by an initial reluctance to produce an environmental impact statement, an error in judgment that UH officials have vowed not to repeat with the TMT project. This failure has led to legal disputes, some still unresolved, with environmental groups and organizations representing Hawaiian cultural practitioners who seek to protect what is considered sacred ground.
If the state wants to make scientific strides toward the future at Mauna Kea, steps must be taken without further delay to address the legacy of the past. Treatment plans should be developed in advance of unearthing any ancient burial sites, which are numerous near the summit, rather than wait for the nearly inevitable, inadvertent disturbance during construction. And the scientific community must continue to expand its conversations with knowledgeable practitioners to map out the best way of proceeding.
Mauna Kea is among the crown jewels of Hawai'i, one that can truly help the Islands touch the stars. It is not an inexhaustible resource — development must proceed with care so that effects on sensitive ecosystems can be gauged cumulatively. But there ought to be a way to accommodate science, recreation and cultural practice in such a special place.