Sierra Club: Giant telescopes belong in Chile, not Hawaii

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Gathering Place
Nelson Ho and Deborah Ward

Giant telescopes belong in Chile, not Hawaii

Sen. Daniel Inouye is pressuring the California Institute of Technology and the University of California to build their giant Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea instead of in Chile, a drier site preferred by many astronomers. To mollify native Hawaiians, Inouye wants Caltech and UC to fork over “mitigation funds” to Hawaiian programs at the Imiloa Astronomy Center, UH-Hilo and the Hawaii Community College.

Inouye’s efforts strike us as disrespectful to our community, coming after decades of outcry fueled by 40 years of summit mismanagement, lease violations, and environmental and cultural damage to the mountain. They also come on the heels of state and federal court rulings against the last UC/Caltech project.

Their Keck 6 Outriggers died after Big Island Judge Glenn S. Hara sided with Hawaiians and Sierra Club to void the project’s conservation district use permits because the Board of Land and Natural Resources failed to write a comprehensive plan “to conserve, protect and preserve the summit area of Mauna Kea.” A federal judge had earlier forced the Outrigger project to also follow U.S. law and complete a federal environmental review, the first Mauna Kea telescope to do so.

UH immediately appealed Hara’s 2007 ruling, but abandoned that strategy last week. Instead, and repeating the error that led to the ruling, UH is rushing to cobble together yet another veiled development plan it claims will satisfy conservation district regulations – a bald-faced attempt to circumvent both the ruling and BLNR’s legal regulatory responsibility to write the plan.

UH has denied its plan is part of a strategy to pave the TMT’s way, even as it works toward renegotiating the original summit lease to accommodate the observatory. Inouye is more honest about it in a recent letter to UH President David McClain. He says the plan “will provide a blueprint for Mauna Kea’s future” that includes the TMT.

No matter. Sierra Club and the Hawaiian plaintiffs are prepared to litigate any continued illegalities – with UH’s plan, the lease, TMT’s EIS or the BLNR permits, if it comes to that.

With the law and the citizens against them, how else could Inouye and TMT proponents force their will on Hawaii? Exempt the project from the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act, as Sen. John McCain did to clear the way for Arizona’s Mount Graham telescopes? That would be foolish since Inouye has already had to apologize to Hawaiians for past heavy-handed politics to secure reviled projects, including bombing on Kahoolawe, the H-3 freeway and geothermal development on Kilauea.

Years ago at a hearing, professor and cultural expert Pualani Kanakaole Kanahele wondered aloud if the Mauna Kea fight would eventually become “another Kahoolawe.” To avoid the kind of political embarrassment, public dismay and even civil disobedience that memories of Kahoolawe conjure up, three solutions to this conflict should be initiated:

» Caltech and UC should resist Inouye’s pressure and take the TMT to Chile.

» BLNR should write the conservation plan required by the laws and precedents upon which Hara’s ruling was based. Part of that plan should include strategies, timetables and performance bonds to dismantle observatories as they become obsolete and return the land to its original condition as the current lease requires.

» BLNR also should start following state law and impose fair market lease rents on all existing telescopes, which now pay only one dollar a year. This would give BLNR the funds to live up to their legal responsibilities to manage Mauna Kea and repair damage already done. BLNR could then finally protect the legal rightholders to the conservation and ceded lands on Mauna Kea.

Nelson Ho and Deborah Ward are co-chairs of Sierra Club’s statewide Mauna Kea Issues Committee.

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