Sierra Club comments to the NSF Portfolio Review Committee
The National Science Foundation has already announced that the federal government will not be funding the development of the Thirty Meter Telescope in the near future. They are, however, considering funding the massive telescope proposed for Mauna Kea in the distant future. Below is a letter the Moku Loa Group of the Sierra Club sent to the National Science Foundation to dissuade them from funding such an unnecessary destruction of sacred native land.
The National Science Foundation has already announced that the federal government will not be funding the development of the Thirty Meter Telescope in the near future. They are, however, considering funding the massive telescope proposed for Mauna Kea in the distant future. Below is a letter the Moku Loa Group of the Sierra Club sent to the National Science Foundation to dissuade them from funding such an unnecessary destruction of sacred native land
We at Sierra Club understand that your committee is now considering which of two next generation telescopes it will recommend to receive substantial funding from the National Science Foundation—the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea in Hawai‘i or the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) on Cerro Las Campanas in Chile.
We thought that as you consider these two projects you might appreciate receiving some background information about the local controversy in Hawai‘i regarding the possible construction of the TMT on Mauna Kea, the legality of which is now being challenged. This controversy and the litigation associated with it will affect the efficacy of your committee’s decisions and therefore should be considered as you carry out your important charge.
Sierra Club understands that this may not be the typical kind of input that your process is designed to attract. However, because your scientific funding recommendations could lead to significant, adverse and substantial environmental and cultural implications for the mountaintop, we feel compelled to advise you of these considerations.
Mauna Kea’s special legal status
Islanders have longstanding concerns about further industrialization of the mountaintop, which is designated by the State of Hawai‘i as a Conservation District and is subject to strict environmental limitations in order to protect the district’s unique cultural and natural resources. Hawai‘i has also designated the whole summit area as a State Historic District because of its important cultural significance.
Longstanding cultural and environmental concerns
Native Hawaiians have long revered Mauna Kea as a sacred mountain, reflected by its numerous shrines, altars and other religious and cultural sites. The mountaintop is where Hawaiians’ genesis story took place and the burial ground of their most revered ancestors. Contemporary Hawaiians conduct traditional spiritual and astronomical ceremonies there. Its stunning, windblown Aeolian Alpine landscape is also home to plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth, whose habitats have already been damaged by observatory industrialization.
Land Management Controversy Creates Litigation
The State’s Land Board has approved TMT’s Conservation District Use Application (submitted on TMT’s behalf by the University of Hawai‘i), but that decision was conditional on the outcome of a recent ‘contested case hearing’ before a State-appointed hearings officer who is now considering its extensive testimony and findings of fact. During those hearings, the legality of the Land Board’s decision was challenged and will ultimately be resolved in court.
A related lawsuit, challenging the adequacy of a required Comprehensive Management Plan (rushed by the University of Hawai‘i to meet the schedules of TMT and NSF), has also been in the courts.
The last time Caltech and the University of California proposed a telescope project for Mauna Kea (the Keck Outriggers), federal and state courts sided with Native Hawaiians and environmentalists to support the environmental and cultural protections of the Conservation District and ruled against proceeding with further development in the district. We expect them to do the same this time.
A deep community commitment to Hawai‘i’s special mountain
Islanders feel compelled to challenge state agency decisions that violate state and federal laws, particularly when those laws were established to protect places like Mauna Kea and indigenous people like Native Hawaiians. In Hawai‘i what is traditionally “sacred” is taken seriously—and protected by law—because of the state’s large native population and the persistence of contemporary forms of traditional cultural and religious practice.
But a much broader public, of all ethnic backgrounds, is also involved, having long expressed worry about the mountain’s overdevelopment and the summit’s changing appearance from the coast.
Some web links for background on this decades-long controversy
All this public concern and litigation is something TMT and University of Hawai‘i astronomers have worked hard to downplay—and may have understated to your committee. To provide you with some background about the ongoing local controversy, we’ve pasted onto this message some web links that may be useful to you. They include a sampling of the many newspaper articles that have appeared here and in California, as well as other useful links to help you understand that TMT’s support in Hawai‘i is limited primarily to University astronomers and observatory staff, local construction companies and unions, and some politicians.
As you review these materials, you’ll immediately notice that the island opposition to TMT concerns local land use issues, not the scientific value of astronomy, which is generally regarded here as important to society. Indeed, I myself am a lifelong astronomy fan who believes a giant telescope—located more sensitively in Chile—will yield wonderful research discoveries that will deepen our understanding of the universe.
Mahalo for taking the time to read this note and visit these websites. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
Nelson Ho, Co-Chair
Mauna Kea Issues Committee
Hawai‘i Chapter of Sierra Club
For background, please visit these websites:
“Hawaiians, Mountain in Avatar-like struggle,” by Tom Peek, a former Mauna Kea Observatories tour guide, Sacramento Bee, March 9, 2010: now available at:
“Grassroots Hui Coordinates Defense of Mauna Kea,” by staff reporters at the Hawai‘i Independent, July 4, 2011:
Native Hawaiians’ Open Letter to TMT donor Gordon Moore: http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/2699/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=1469
“A big boondoggle: Can the TMT project be stopped? It's not an idea that's out of this world,” by Nelson Ho of Sierra Club, Honolulu Star-Advertiser, June 14, 2010: http://www.staradvertiser.com/editorials/20100614_A_big_boondoggle.html
“Pilgrimage to the Sky: Mauna Kea Equinox” by Marya Mann, Ke Ola magazine, November-December 2011: http://keolamagazine.com/the-life-of-the-land/pilgrimage-to-the-sky-mauna-kea/
“World’s Largest Telescope to be Built in Hawaii” by Audrey McAvoy, USA Today, July 22, 2009: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/space/2009-07-22-observatory_N.htm
“Excitement, disappointment over TMT decision” by Peter Sur, Hawaii Tribune-Herald: http://www.tmt.org/news/Site-Selection-News-Stories/Tribune-Herald.pdf
“Giant Telescope Eyes Site on Mauna Kea” by Kevin Dayton, Honolulu Advertiser, August 10, 2008: http://links.tmt-hawaiieis.org/08-1008_HA_Article_Giant_Telescope_Eyes_Site_on_Mauna_Kea_0_cfdc.pdf. This investigative article discusses the insider political campaign to build TMT on Mauna Kea.
Official KAHEA Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance website at http://kahea.org/, which contains numerous additional links, legal documents, and history. Pages containing specific information about the Mauna Kea and Haleakala controversies are found at: http://kahea.org/issues/sacred-summits
“Science, Culture Clash over Sacred Mountain” by science writer Usha Lee McFarling, Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2001: now available at:
“As-One,” a recent music video produced by Native Hawaiian kids to gather public support for Mauna Kea: http://kahea.org/blog/as-one