Park service opposes building on Haleakala
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By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
The National Park Service is troubled by plans to build Maui's tallest building — a $230 million solar telescope — adjacent to Haleakala National Park.
The park service says the project could harm endangered species and alter the visitor experience in the park forever.
Jonathan B. Jarvis, the park service regional director for the Pacific west region, warned in a May 18 letter that the National Science Foundation hasn't properly dealt with the potential "numerous direct impacts" the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope will have on the park.
"I'm not opposed to science, but I do think the size and the scale of this immediately adjacent to a major national park is wrong," said Haleakala National Park Superintendent Marilyn H. Parris. "You're giving away too much when you look at the impacts that it will have on park resources and values, but also the impact that it will have on Native Hawaiian culture and values.
"They could go somewhere else, and maybe not get the perfect science, or the amount of science they're hoping, but they could go somewhere else and have less impact."
The ATST would be the largest solar telescope in the world, and scientists say the research done with the new instrument could quickly have real-world applications as astronomers learn more about solar disturbances that affect technology such as cellular phone and satellite operations.
The principal investigator on the project is the National Solar Observatory under a partnership with the University of Hawai'i's Institute for Astronomy and others, and the funding for the project would come from the National Science Foundation.
Mike Maberry, assistant director of the astronomy institute, said many of the park service concerns will be addressed as the institute and the NSF complete environmental and other studies for the project.
But Maberry acknowledged that other issues, such as the park service objections to the size of the proposed observatory, can't be easily resolved.
The Park Service is worried the new building will "completely change the experience of the summit of Haleakala by changing the sense of scale," and by reducing the feeling visitors experience as small beings on a massive natural landscape. The 143-foot structure would be the tallest on Maui.
Maberry said the new observatory has to be that large to function properly. Scientists calculated the minimum distance needed between the ground and the primary mirror of the observatory to avoid the daytime heat shimmer from the lava landscape, and "the height is as short as it can be and still be successful in accomplishing the science goals," he said.
He also noted one of the existing observatories is 110 feet tall.
There are already five astronomy facilities at the institute's 18-acre Haleakala Observatories site on the 10,023-foot Maui summit, and the ATST would be built on ground that has already been disturbed by development.
Hundreds of Native Hawaiians, environmentalists and others have opposed the new Solar Telescope project on Haleakala, which has a rich history as a cultural and religious site.
In ancient times, commoners were not allowed to walk on the summit because tradition held that it belonged to the gods. Numerous deities were said to reside in the crater, and sacred kahuna or priests used the summit area as a learning center.
Pu'u Kolekole, where the existing Haleakala Observatories stand, has cultural resources that date back more than 1,000 years, and is "an integral part of the Hawaiian culture, both past and present," according to the draft environmental impact statement for the new observatory.
The draft EIS found the summit meets the criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places because of its association with the cultural practices or beliefs, and the state Historic Preservation Division at the Department of Land and Natural Resources agreed with that finding.
The report found there would be significant impact on cultural resources if the observatory is built, but said the National Science Foundation is working with the Native Hawaiian and local communities on ways to reduce the adverse effects of the project.
Josh Chamot, media officer for the mathematical and physical sciences directorate of the NSF, said Haleakala was selected from among 72 potential sites as the best site for the project for specific reasons that included very low levels of dust, and excellent atmospheric conditions that allow for clearer observations.
"The biggest thing that we're concerned with is the science," he said.
He declined to address the specific Park Service concerns because the NSF is still working on a final environmental impact statement for the project. Maberry said that environmental report should be finished next spring.
In his letter to National Science Board Chair Steven C. Bering, NPS Regional Director Jarvis said the scientists planning the observatory haven't properly consulted with NPS to try to resolve the problems the park service foresees with the project.
Parris said public release of the letter to the National Science Board was a "desperate measure" because parks officials didn't seem to be able to get the attention of the NSF.
Maberry said project planners have met with Park Service officials before to discuss the project, and have promised in writing to meet with them again. "I can assure you that we take very seriously those concerns" about the project, he said.
Once the environmental impact statement is complete, the project sponsors must seek a conservation district use permit from the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, which likely would happen in 2008.
Parris said the Park Service has a responsibility to protect Haleakala, and unless its concerns are addressed, the Park Service will oppose the project when it goes before the land board.
Apart from the visual and cultural impact of the project, the Park Service also worried about the impact on the park road, which was built as a scenic road between 1933 and 1935.
The road is also eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and was not designed for the heavy construction traffic it will need to handle for continued astronomy development, according to the Jarvis letter.
Maberry said concerns about the road already have been discussed with parks officials, and it was agreed that specific plans to mitigate the traffic impacts of the new facility would wait until federal highways officials completed a new study of the route.
That study has been completed, and project engineers are studying the report, Maberry said.
The Park Service also worries the new observatory will harm nene and 'ua'u bird populations in or near the park, or usher in new types of invasive species that could become established in the park.
Maberry said there is already a procedure in place for steam cleaning and using pesticides to rid heavy equipment headed for Haleakala of invasive species.
As for the concern about the endangered species, Maberry said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service studied the observatory proposal and issued a favorable biological opinion on the plans to prevent harm to the rare bird populations.
Jarvis questioned that Fish & Wildlife finding in his letter, arguing there might still be substantial deaths and other harm to the bird populations.
Officials concerned about impact 143-foot-tall telescope facility will have on culture, environment
Reach Kevin Dayton at email@example.com.