Taking a stand for Mauna Kea, against mammoth new observatory

By Jeanne Cooper
SF Gate

“Did you hear about the shark on Maui?” is a frequent question I encounter these days. Since many have only read headlines, they’re unaware that the circumstances of recent attacks, though tragic for victims, are generally not how and where visitors experience Hawaiian waters.  Personally, I’m more concerned about an even larger if virtual  shark menacing Hawaii: the massive new observatory complex, dubbed the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT),  proposed for the summit of Mauna Kea, which could see construction as early as next year.

Funded by Caltech, the University of California and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (of Intel fame and fortune), in collaboration with the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, and institutions in Japan,

Some of the current observatories atop Mauna Kea can be seCanada, China and India,  the 18-story telescope would not only be the tallest building on the island of Hawai‘i, according to opponents,  but would destroy at least 5 acres of native species habitat, block viewplains used for traditional astronomy by cultural practitioners and further industrialize one of the most sacred places — if not the most — in Native Hawaiian spirituality.

A small but committed band representing Native Hawaiian environmental and cultural groups, supported by the Sierra Club and others,  have appealed the state Board of Land and Natural Resources’s April decision to grant a permit for the TMT. Oral arguments are scheduled to start today in Hilo.

Although they’ve had amazing successes so far, it’s uncertain how much longer these Davids can stave off Goliath. Or to use a shark metaphor, the great white might win this one. A haole myself, I understand that the “white” imagery may be especially apt. Since Westerners arrived in the islands a little over 200 years ago, our mode has primarily been one of taking and consuming — land, fresh water, ports, beaches, nationhood — and like a shark we never seem to rest.

“The lack of say and control we have over our sacred places is one of the ongoing traumas of colonialism and occupation for Kanaka Māoli [Native Hawaiians] in Hawai‘i,” Ilima Long, a UH graduate student in Hawaiian studies and an organizer of the anti-telescope movement,  told the student newspaper Ka Leo last month.

A statement from Kahea: The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, one of the plaintiffs in the case, explains the more recent context of why many Native Hawaiians and other island residents see the proposed telescope as yet more taking and consuming:

Forty years ago, the people of Hawai‘i agreed to share two of our highest and most sacred summits with a small community of UH astronomers–on the promise of protection and stewardship of fragile alpine habitats, endemic native species, and sacred cultural landscapes.

Today, Haleakalā and Mauna Kea have become the target of increasingly aggressive industrial development proposals from some of the world’s wealthiest nations, corporations, and institutions. The promise to mālama (care for) our sacred summits remain unfulfilled.

The footprint of roads, buildings, parking, and ever-larger telescope complexes has grown each decade, while natural and cultural resources have been irreplaceably lost, desecrated and destroyed. New telescopes, buildings and roads are being proposed, while the U.S. Army has announced a proposal to create “landing zones” for risky high altitude helicopter trainings on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

What’s especially alarming is that the presence of all those other observatories — easily seen on a clear day from Kohala to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park — evokes a “What’s the harm in one more” reaction in some visitors with whom I’ve discussed the case. Here’s another perspective, one that believes there’s plenty of harm:

“The construction of a structure larger than all the others combined, in an open space area, where no other observatory exists today, will negatively affect the geology, the viewplanes, and the natural beauty, cultural, and recreational resources of Mauna Kea,” said plaintiffDeborah K. Ward, in a statement released by Native Hawaiian preservationist group Mauna Kea Anaina Hou.

“The TMT project area, including the Observatory site and Access Way, would destroy and disturb over 8.7 acres of wēkiu bug habitat, as well as kill wēkiu bugs in these areas,” Ward continued. “The loss, degradation, and reduction of wēkiu bug habitat on the summit of Mauna Kea is the result of astronomy development, and more development could lead to the introduction of new invasive species into the unique ecosystem.”

If the fate of insects isn’t particularly motivating, what about the concerns of a people?  The state designated the summit of Mauna Kea  as a conservation district “to protect the district’s unique cultural and natural resources,” wrote Nelson Ho of Sierra Club’s Hawai‘i chapter in a 2012 letter to the National Science Foundation, urging it not to fund the TMT.

“Hawai‘i has also designated the whole summit area as a State Historic District because of its important cultural significance,” Ho observed. “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.”

As Ho goes on to note,  it’s not just members of the Native Hawaiian community who object to the telescope, and TMT opponents are  not  anti-science.

“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,” he wrote in his letter to the NSF. “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.”

The NSF eventually issued a “partnership-planning grant” to the observatory project last May, according to TMT’s own timeline. In the forward-thinking Bay Area, I  have encountered some who scoff at the idea that traditional (or any) spiritual practices should be allowed to obstruct scientific pursuit. And as an admirer of Polynesian celestial navigation, I used to ask myself, isn’t astronomical research something of which the ancients would be proud?

But then I wonder: Would we so readily accept an 18-story observatory atop of Grace Cathedral, Notre Dame or St. Peter’s? What about atop Mount Tam, Mount Shasta or Half Dome? And just because there are already two ugly, tall towers at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf, would city officials allow more to be built next to them? I seem to recall San Francisco said no to that.

‘A‘ole — no — is what the plaintiffs, such as kumu hula Paul K. Neves, cultural practitioner and former Mauna Kea telescope systems specialist Kealoha Pisciotta, and cultural educator Pualani Case, are saying to the TMT.

“We have a saying at home, ‘Sense of place, sense of identity.’ What that’s about is connection,” said Case, during a trip to the Bay Area last summer. “It’s about learning about where you live first and then having a responsibility to care for that place. Mauna Kea was and still is the highest temple in the whole world from (the sea floor.) That is the most sacred place in the world to us. We stand on behalf of the mountain because of those reasons, and because we have a relationship for that mountain that tells us to make sure that we care for it.”

During her Bay Area visit, Case said she went to Palo Alto with a gift for the Gordon Moore Foundation, whose namesake has a house on the Big Island. “I gave them a book written about my elder that talks about how sacred Mauna Kea is. I said,  ‘You have given money to fund this telescope, but you have not talked to native people.’ They have good hearts and they give money and they have good intentions, but they have to know more. They have to know that they are giving money to something that is going to hurt a people.”

Case, who goes up to the mountain regularly to pray,  says she had a personal reason to take a stand against TMT.  “Almost no matter where I look, there’s something foreign there. I can never just pray as you would in a forest where there are just trees — where no matter where you faced,  it would be just you and your forest, you and your gods, you and your spirit. I’m afraid if there’s one more thing, I can never really look at my mountain and pray without having to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ “

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