On the perils of compromise
Some have viewed the awesome response to calls to protect Mauna Kea and asked the apparently reasonable question of whether a compromise cannot be reached. Compromise, however, is how we got to this point in the first place.
One, two, three, then thirteen telescopes were constructed on Mauna Kea’s highest summit, Kukuhauʻula, which the University of Hawaiʻi took to calling the “Astronomy Precinct.” These actions – the construction and the naming of these lands – sought to naturalize astronomy as the purpose of Mauna Kea’s summit. The state Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) acquiesced with UH’s management efforts. DLNR conservation district rules recognize “astronomy facilities” as a permissible use of a certain classification of the conservation district, called “Resource Subzone” lands.
Construction on conservation district lands, even of astronomy facilities, must meet eight criteria, one of which prohibits projects that cause substantial adverse impacts. All authoritative documents agree that the existing twelve observatories under UH management have caused substantial adverse impacts. This is true for Mauna Kea and Haleakalā summits. UH has argued, essentially, because these summits are already messed up – an “increment” more would not be substantial. Because Mauna Kea (and Haleakalā) has already been compromised, new observatory construction would cause only a “slight increase” of bad impacts. According to this logic, the more UH messes up these summits, the lower the bar is for new construction.
This logic bears comparison to former DLNR-chair nominee, Carleton Ching’s misapplication of “balancing” to the problem of a resource that had been already been 90 percent depleted. A “balance” between developer and conservation uses of the last ten percent would not only leave the developer with 95% of the resource. It would leave us with a rule that permits future balances between the remaining 5%, 2.5%, and so on. Compromise cannot be the rule.
I am certain that those calling for compromise would not endorse UH’s magical math logic about bad impacts and increments. My point is that we cannot look only at the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope as an isolated problem to be remedied by making both “sides” happy. The questions being raised by Mauna Kea protectors are about whose futures, knowledges, and histories will be made to thrive in Hawai'i. And it seems the TMT project is going to be made to provide answers to them.
Bianca Kai Isaki, Ph.D., Esq. has been active in the landscape of Hawai'i’s environmental and Hawaiian rights protections through her work with KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, the Conservation Council for Hawai'i, and the Hawai'i Alliance for Progressive Action. She works as an independent writer and researcher on Hawai'i water code, public process, public trust land, and other environmental law and policy issues.