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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Draft EIS for Maui telescope cites snag

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

HOW TO WEIGH IN

Public-comment meetings on a draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Advanced Technology Solar Telescope are scheduled for:

  • Sept. 27, Cameron Center Auditorium, Wailuku.

  • Sept. 28, Hannibal Tavares Community Center, Pukalani.

  • Sept. 29, Kula Community Center.

    All meetings from 6-10 p.m. Deadline for public comment is Oct. 23. Send written comments to Dr. Craig B. Foltz, National Science Foundation, Division of Astronomical Sciences, 4201 Wilson Blvd., Room 1045, Arlington, VA 22230; fax (703) 292-9034; e-mail: cfoltz@nsf.gov.

    LEARN MORE

    See the draft EIS at http://atst.nso.edu

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    WAILUKU, Maui A draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Advanced Technology Solar Telescope says there will be significant effects on Haleakala's cultural resources if the $180 million project is built.

    The new report also states the impact can be mitigated by measures that include hiring a Hawaiian cultural specialist to consult during planning and construction, and inviting other involvement by the Native Hawaiian community. But harsh criticism heaped on the project over the past year makes it unlikely those measures will be enough to satisfy the hundreds of Native Hawaiians, environmentalists and others opposed to the telescope.

    They argue the Haleakala summit is a natural and cultural treasure that should be protected from further development, especially construction of a 14-story-high observatory that would be the tallest building on the island.

    Maui resident Mikahala Helm summed up the feelings of many when she wrote in a letter to the National Science Foundation, one of the project's sponsors, that "once again the needs of science are seen as more important than the needs of the Hawaiian people."

    Supporters say the solar telescope is necessary to carry out critical scientific studies, and that it would provide jobs and educational outreach and be a further boost to the island's high-tech industry. University of Hawai'i astronomer Jeff Kuhn said the ATST would provide "the biggest jump in our capabilities to understand the sun since Galileo. It's a big deal."

    Ultimately, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources will have to decide if the recommendations contained in the environmental report are adequate when it considers the project's application for a conservation district use permit. The permit application may be submitted once a final environmental impact statement is completed, perhaps by the end of the year.

    The conflict between scientific pursuit and cultural practices has been played out before in the context of astronomy projects, most notably on Mauna Kea, home of 13 observatories. The 10,023-foot Maui summit hosts five facilities within the 18-acre Haleakala Observatories site, so the new solar telescope would be built on ground already disturbed by development.

    Mike Maberry, assistant director of the University of Hawai'i's Institute for Astronomy, which manages Haleakala Observatories, said officials recognize the mountain's deep cultural and traditional connection to Hawaiians. A long-range development plan for the area was recently completed to address some of these issues, he said, and the study being conducted for the proposed solar telescope is the first "full-blown EIS" conducted for an observatory there, "because we recognize the concerns of Native Hawaiians and to show respect."

    Scientists are eager for community approval of the ATST because of its immense significance as "an indispensable tool" for exploring and understanding the sun's physical processes, such as solar flares and sunspots, that ultimately affect earthly activities ranging from wireless communications to global climate change.

    With an unprecedented 165-inch aperture, it would be the largest solar observatory in the world.

    After an extensive years-long international search that began with 70 potential sites, Haleakala emerged as the prime location, offering the most hours with the best viewing conditions to maximize scientific output. When asked if the project would be just as valuable anywhere else, Kuhn said: "Not a chance. ... By all the ways we could measure, Haleakala was the best site in the world for solar physics."

    Hawaiians have their own reasons for valuing Haleakala that some argue are not compatible with further development at the summit. The draft EIS, prepared by KC Environmental Inc., states that some would view any foundation excavation on the mountaintop as a "wound" in a highly sacred place.

    The cultural resources of Pu'u Kolekole, upon which sits Haleakala Observatories, date back more than 1,000 years, the report said, "and are an integral part of the Hawaiian culture, both past and present. In ancient times, commoners could not even walk on the summit because it belonged to the gods."

    In addition to the numerous deities who were said to reside in the crater, sacred kahuna (priests) used the summit area as a learning center. "It was a place where the kahuna could absorb the tones of ancient prayer and balance within the vortex of energy, for spiritual manifestations, the art of healing, and for navigation," according to the draft EIS.

    After historical research and consultation with Hawaiian experts, the National Science Foundation found that the summit constitutes a "traditional cultural property," a term used by the National Register of Historic Places to identify properties eligible for inclusion in the National Register because of their association with the cultural practices or beliefs of a "living community," the draft EIS said. That view is shared by the state Historic Preservation Division at the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

    The report said the National Science Foundation already is working with the Native Hawaiian and local communities on strategies to lessen the project's adverse effects. The agency said it hopes the discussions will culminate in a draft memorandum of agreement that would allay worries about construction of the telescope.

    Other mitigation measures include requiring construction workers to attend University of Hawai'i-approved "sense of place" training, and developing education programs with Kamehameha Schools, Maui Community College and other schools that integrate traditional Hawaiian navigation and astronomy practices and modern astronomical principles.

    Retired Haleakala National Park superintendent Don Reeser said in comments submitted for the draft EIS that the document ignores its own findings about the cultural significance of the summit by proposing only "modest protocols before and during construction." He said the report provides little or no evidence that the area's cultural significance is compatible with astronomy operations.

    Ki'ope Raymond, a Hawaiian language and studies professor at Maui Community College, told The Advertiser that he believes the two can be compatible. He said the community in general welcomed the smaller Faulkes Telescope at Haleakala because of its educational mission.

    He called the 143-foot-high housing for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope "literally and figuratively over the top." A scaled-down project would be more acceptable, according to Raymond. "It's not that the community is against good science, it has to do with the sheer mass of the project," he said.

    However, because downsizing is not an option with the kind of scientific research to be conducted, Raymond said, the developers should re-examine the other finalist sites, including Big Bear Lake in California and the Canary Islands none of which is deemed to have sacred significance.

    "They are pushing the limits at the expense of a very spiritual place ... it's just too much."

    Maberry believes there is a way for science and cultural interests to coexist. "We are doing our very best to show respect and we are trying our best to educate the community that we are studying the heavens from Haleakala with the same sense of awe and discovery the original kilo hoku (astronomers) had when they went up to the summit to study the heavens," he said.

    The document discusses two proposed sites within the Haleakala Observatories. The preferred site is east of the existing Mees Solar Observatory. The alternative location, about 100 yards away at a higher elevation, is an undeveloped site referred to as Reber Circle.

    The earliest possible construction start would be during fiscal 2009, the draft EIS said, with the site in full operation by 2015.

    Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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