Are the contributions of astronomy worth the actual costs?
Image: Tiffany Hervey

Mauna Kea–Sacred Summit or Cash Cow?

Controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope

Science / To Hawaiians, the top of Mauna Kea is the pinnacle of prayer, where Papa and Wakea meet. The world’s tallest mountain, at 13,769 feet, is also the only tropical alpine desert in the world. For these reasons, advocates for cultural and environmental conservation have been challenging the proposal of a new Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on its summit for a while now. The TMT Corporation plans to build a telescope that–at 34,000 square feet and 18 stories tall–would be the largest ever installed on Mauna Kea and the second largest in the world. It’s estimated that the telescope will be able to see with greater clarity than the Hubble Space Telescope. According to TMT’s Gordon Squires, the cost is a projected $1.3 billion project, with The Moore Foundation, Caltech and the University of California (UC) pledging $350 million thus far.

In February, the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) approved the TMT proposal, while opponents of the decision were granted a contested case hearing–a quasi-judicial proceeding allowing petitioners to call and cross-examine witnesses before a hearings officer, in this case Paul Aoki, an attorney with Ashford & Wriston. After the conclusion of the hearings, which began last month, Aoki will issue a recommendation to the BLNR, which will then vote again on whether to grant the construction permit for the TMT. The losing side has the option to appeal to the 3rd Circuit Court.

Leased Hawaiian and Conservation Lands

Mauna Kea is ceded land–part of the 1.8 million acres of the Hawaiian Kingdom transferred to the US after its annexation–that has been held in a trust by the state for the benefit of Native Hawaiians and the general public since 1959. It is also conservation land that, according to Hawaii Administrative Rules, is protected by law from adverse industrial development.

In 1968, the DLNR gave the University of Hawaii a 65-year lease for all land above 9,200 feet on Mauna Kea, comprising of 13,321 acres, according to the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Plan. The first telescope was built in 1968, and, today, the summit is home to 13 telescope complexes operated by 11 different countries.

The state leases the land to UH for $1 per year. UH sub-leases to the telescope observatories for $1 per year, and the observatories sell viewing time for whatever price they choose. For example, in the past, the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea rented out viewing time at $1 per second, which adds up to $30,000 per night. In 2009, Yale University paid $12 million for an annual 15 nights of observing time over the course of 10 years.

According to a state audit in 1998, UH did not fulfill its obligations as a responsible leaseholder of conservation lands. It was reported that development had increased under the direction of UH’s Institute of Astronomy, historic preservation had been neglected, historic sites had been damaged, cultural value of the summit had gone unrecognized and trash from construction had been visible. State auditor Marion Higa summarized that, over the years, more than $600 million was spent to construct the 13 telescopes and the antenna on Mauna Kea. Another $50 million per year was spent by agencies involved in the operation of telescopes. Higa stated in the audit, “A small percentage of these substantial amounts could reasonably have been used for environmental protection and to provide basic services to the public. However, this is not the case.”

Recommendations were then made by the state and the Office of Mauna Kea Management (OMKM), which was created in 2000 to deal with the day-to-day management of all resources within the UH management areas. The OMKM members are appointed by the UH Board of Regents. The state conducted a follow-up audit in 2005, which still found management plans to be insufficient.

Comparing Values, Weighing Costs

According to a 2008 report by the Hawaii Science & Technology Council, there were 885 astronomy related jobs in Hawaii. TMT “will provide an estimated additional 120-140 jobs,” says Lynne T. Waters, Associate Vice President for External Affairs and University Relations at UH, adding that, “The economic impact study…found that the total economic impact of current astronomy activities on Mauna Kea is approximately $140 million per year.”

Cultural and ecological impacts are raised by petitioners in the contested hearing. Cultural practitioner Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the first Native Hawaiians to work at the summit as a telescope technician, explains that, in addition to rare insects, native birds and the unique and fragile geological landscape, the summit contains centuries-old cultural sites: shrines, burial places, adze quarries and view planes used for observing and tracking the motion of the sun and other celestial bodies across the sky. Conducting an environmental impact study (EIS) to determine exactly how the proposed TMT will affect the sacred ground could help put some of these concerns to rest.

Pisciotta joined petitioners Paul Neves, Clarence Kukauakahi Ching, Deborah Ward, Marti Townsend of KAHEA and the Flores/Case ‘Ohana on the Big Island in August for the case hearings. The first day at the Hilo State Office Building featured Gary Sanders, TMT project manager, and Perry White, principal author of the Conservation District Use Application. Both answered questions under oath regarding TMT’s legal, economic, environmental, spiritual, visual, financial and cultural impacts. Stephanie Nagata, interim director of the Office of Mauna Kea Management, testified that since 2007 OMKM has received $6 per visitor from permitted commercial tour operators, totaling about $280,000 per year. Twenty percent of these funds sit in an account to be transferred to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, but no mechanism currently exists to do such.

“There’s lots of money being made up there, but the public is denied access to these public lands without any financial benefit in the form of rent, taxes, or fees or anything,” observes Marti Townsend, KAHEA program director. “OMKM maintains that they have nothing to do with the telescope operations, [maintaining that] million-dollar contracts on public lands are private transactions within outside institutions,” she notes. Meanwhile, the public is basically subsidizing the observatories, Townsend says. “Telescope operations at high altitude are a huge suck on energy. We haven’t been able to get any numbers from the telescope operations on how much energy they use, but we know they use a lot and that it raises the price of energy. Hawaii Island has the highest energy costs in the state.”

The contested case hearings are open to the public and will continue Sep 26 and 30 in conference room A in the Komohana Building at the UH-Hilo College of Tropical Agriculture.