TMT Wants to Stay

Stakeholders and supporters of the Thirty Meter Telescope project highlight community impacts and discuss opposition to project construction

Copy Editor Elijah Kahula

In October, 2018, the Thirty Meter Telescope, a proposed telescope featuring cutting-edge space observation capabilities, was approved for construction on Maunakea by the Hawai'i Supreme Court after winning a series of legal battles with opponents of the telescope’s construction.

The nonprofit committed to building the $1.4 billion telescope, first conceived of by the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), the University of California (UC), and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), was founded in 2003. In the decade following its founding, the project gained more international stakeholders from partnering with astronomy-focused institutions from countries such as China and Japan.

The TMT Vice President and astronomer Gordon Squires says that the telescope has unprecedented potential to make discoveries about the universe and our place in it, stating, “Every single time a new generation of telescopes has been built, our views and our understanding of the universe and where we are in it has been completely revolutionized.” He traces these improvements in human understanding back to astronomer Galileo’s invention of the telescope, when the discovery was made that the earth circles the sun.

In the next generation of telescopes that the TMT is a part of, Squires says astronomers will have further clues about the origin of the universe, the mystery of dark matter, and black holes, as well as phenomena astronomers haven’t even perceived yet. “What’s exciting is what we don’t know that we don’t yet know,” says Squires.

Along with various environmental impact mitigation conditions that the project must uphold under its Conservation District Use Permit (CDUP), a permit issued by the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) allowing the TMT to build, stipulations around the telescope were added by UH in 2015. One stipulation was that the TMT would be the last telescope allowed to be built on Maunakea. The letter to BLNR, written by UH System President David Lassner, also declares a commitment to decommissioning three telescopes on the mountain. “UH will decommission three telescopes permanently and as soon as possible though all must be completed before the TMT can go into operation.”

The reissued construction permit was a victory for the TMT, but it was not the end of construction blockades from those opposed to the project, who set up protests and blocked the access road up Maunakea. On July 17, 2019, Hawai'i Governor David Ige issued an emergency proclamation giving “law enforcement increased flexibility and authority to close more areas and restrict access on Maunakea.” Police, dressed in riot gear, began arresting the protesters, referred to as kiaʻi, or protectors, blocking the single access road up the mountain. The day ended with 38 arrests made, 33 of which were reportedly kupuna (elders). They were released back to the protest site the same day in order to keep peace, officials say.

Since the TMT project started, opponents of building the TMT on the mountain have attempted to stop the construction for various reasons related to Hawaiian culture, history, and belief by some that the mauna is a sacred site and that as such, construction on Maunakea is desecration. Some are disappointed with perceived land mismanagement by the University of Hawai'i, which owns the lease for projects on the mountain’s astronomy precinct, where the telescope is planned to be built. Others feel that Native Hawaiians and their representative groups are still suffering from the United States government’s disregard for Hawaiian self-determination, attributing the TMT’s construction to the colonizing mindset paralleled in the forcible overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.

Greg Chun, senior advisor to UH on Maunakea, assists UH President David Lassner, among other UH decision-makers, in making critical decisions for the use and management of Maunakea. Chun references the often-discussed 1998 audit of Maunakea, which found significant deficiencies in the management of the mountain, as the impetus that formed current management policies and efforts to create documents such as the Comprehensive Land Management Plan, an extensive plan to protect Maunakea’s cultural, natural, and scientific resources. He says that in subsequent reports done by the Office of Maunakea Management, it was found that many opponents to the construction of telescopes take issue with Maunakea’s management resting under the University of Hawai'i instead of the people of the County of Hawai'i, whom the mauna’s management affects the greatest.

Chun argues that by removing the framework of administration, resources, and policies currently in place and replacing it with a “home rule” system, more difficult questions are raised about what will happen to the framework created to protect the mauna in the last two decades.

As a whole, Chun says, the state can do better at addressing the social, economic, health, and educational injustices of the Hawaiian Kingdom being overthrown and Hawai'i’s subsequent annexation. “The difficult thing about this is that everyone is right,” he says.

Chun was involved with a project in 2016 called EnVision Maunakea, a report that lets community members on the Big Island speak on their opinion of Maunakea. Through that report and other community outreach efforts, he was able to gain valuable input from community members from various backgrounds on the Big Island, including those opposed to construction on the mountain.

n the topic of the mountain he says opponents to telescope construction tell him, “It’s about development and the sanctity of the mountain; but for many people, it’s just that enough is enough.”

Published Aug. 7, 2019, a poll for the Honolulu-based news outlet Civil Beat showed two-thirds of the voting population in Hawai'i support the project. For those voters who identified as Native Hawaiian, however, the poll was split with 48 percent opposed to the project and 44 percent in favor (the remainder were unsure or uninterested.)

The TMT Vice President Gordon Squires emphasizes these findings. “A two to one majority want the TMT to come and want astronomy to be part of the community. Even amongst Native Hawaiians it’s an even split. Half of the Hawaiian population at least is saying they want the observatory there.” He feels that the conflict comes from deeper historical issues than people’s issue with the telescopes or astronomy themselves. “Hopefully, we can start to address those issues successfully for the first time. They’re much bigger than the TMT; they go back to issues of sovereignty and self-determination, and the treatment of Hawaiian people for more than a hundred years back.”

Kalepa Baybayan, Navigator in Residence at UH Hilo’s Imiloa Astronomy Center, is a Native Hawaiian who personally supports the TMT project. Baybayan says that while other Native Hawaiians view the mountain as sacred, he does not. “Sacred,” Baybayan says, “has to do with the worship of a god or gods.” He talks about how aliʻi, Hawai'i’s royalty, abolished the ancient Hawaiian religion system in 1819, which included practices in human sacrifice. “The reason I call it spiritual rather than religious is out of the will and wisdom of the aliʻi, who were trying to make sure the communities they served were brought into the global community.” He adds, “I don’t think [opponents of the TMT] are talking about it, so they’re obviously ignoring it.”

In terms of impact on the mountain, the TMT says they’ve also done extensive work to make sure to build where there are no archaeological sites or burials have been found, as well as a part of the mountain that will not be easily visible for most of the island (another condition in the CDUP.) According to the TMT, the specific site they’ve chosen is also in a place lacking an impact on the mountain’s aquifer, the largest on the island and a critical water supply for those in the region.

While he hopes good comes out of the conversations around the mountain, Squires says the TMT has no interest in leaving Maunakea and pursuing other building sites such as their backup location, La Palma in the Canary Islands. Maunakea has always been the TMT’s first choice from both a scientific and community reasons.

Squires calls the mauna the world’s best site for ground-based astronomy because of many environmental factors including its height, low light pollution, and ideal atmospheric conditions. From the sea floor, Maunakea measures 29,028 feet, making it the tallest mountain in the world.

The TMT’s partners, such as those from Canada, China, and Japan also have connections to the astronomy community in Hawai'i, adding to the incentive to construct Maunakea. With 14 active telescopes in its astronomy precinct, Hawai'i has become an international hub for astronomers who live and work on the island.

Squires sees importance in seeing through the construction of the TMT on Maunakea for the community’s sake. “Like any good neighbor, you don’t just leave when things get hard.” Squires refers to how some in the Big Island community are looking forward to the positive economic impacts of the telescope, including those which will reach UH Hilo. “Astronomy came to the island at the invitation of the people there to try and provide opportunities that didn’t exist before,” he says, referring to the first telescope that was built on the island in the 1960s.

“For students, especially undergraduates at UH Hilo interested in astronomy or exploring any part of the universe, I think the TMT offers tremendous opportunity to them. The telescope has a roughly 10 year construction timeframe, so the younger students today at Hilo will be at the primes of their careers when the TMT goes online.”

He adds that the economic benefits of the telescope extend far pass just scientists to those who will work for and with the TMT in fields such as accounting, facility maintenance, and public relations, as well as the jobs created in the short term for construction of the project.

Baybayan brings up similar points about how the telescope’s construction, or lack thereof, will impact Hawai'i’s economy. “If the telescope isn’t constructed after going through 10 years of a stringent judicial process and winning, it will be bad for the community that a small group of protesters were able to stop the project.” He adds, “UH Hilo will probably suffer some, but the state of Hawai'i will suffer the most. Quite frankly, the Thirty Meter Telescope has won the right to develop. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure that the permits it has allowed can [move forward.]”

With the kia’i of the mauna seemingly steadfast in their position to allow no new construction on the mountain, the path forward for the TMT is unclear. As a supporter of the TMT, Baybayan personally feels that as long as the opposition is unwilling to negotiate, law enforcement intervention will eventually be the only viable option. “Law and order needs to establish control of the mountain, the blockade would have to come down, and access would need to be restored,” he says. “Ultimately, people need to be allowed up the mountain.” He clarifies, the “TMT people would have to be included in that list of people allowed.”

Hawai'i County Mayor Harry Kim, who has been tasked with a mediating role between the TMT and the kiaʻi, has stated his opposition to using force to remove those blocking the mountain’s access road. Squires says he is unsure of how the conflict will be ultimately resolved, but re-emphasizes TMT’s support of the discourse around the project. “We all agree that these are larger historical issues that haven’t been addressed that eagerly need addressing.” For the voices of protest on the mountain, Squires says, “[W]e agree with almost everything they say, except for the point that they argue the TMT can’t be a part of Maunakea.”

“[We] agree with almost everything they say, except for the point that they argue TMT can’t be a part of Maunakea.”

“It’s about development and the sanctity of the mountain; but for many people, it’s just that enough is enough.”