The conflict over the Thirty Meter Telescope will not disappear — certainly not overnight, perhaps not even soon — just because the courts and the state have flashed the green light officially.
But that signal does mark the start of an important new phase in the prolonged and contentious development of the $1.4 billion, state-of-the-art telescope, on property that is under a lease to the University of Hawaii.
The location at the Mauna Kea summit has drawn outcry from, in particular, Native Hawaiian protesters resolute in their opposition to the 180-feet-tall telescope structure going up in an area they consider to be sacred.
That is why Gov. David Ige has had to balance his essential support for the project, which holds great promise of scientific discovery and educational opportunity, with consideration for the protesters’ viewpoint.
This was especially true once the court judged the project’s Conservation District Use Permit review by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources to be flawed. That process had to start over, with each side making its case again.
But last October the state Supreme Court upheld the permit for the telescope, and last week, the land board issued the notice to proceed.
The detailed planning work could move ahead, a decade after the Hawaii site was formally chosen. Ige projects that construction will finally begin sometime this summer, once the construction and grading plans have been reviewed by UH-Hilo and found to be consistent with the court orders.
And now that the longstanding legal challenges against the project have been exhausted, the TMT needs to be given the full support of state and county authorities that it has earned. The state is responsible for the safety of crews entering the campus, where work must be allowed to proceed without obstruction.
At the same time, there are still steps to take to give the environment and the cultural stature of this summit its due respect. That includes allowance for constitutionally protected rights of the Native Hawaiian “protectors” to protest peacefully. Those rights end where they abridge the rights of others, such as by blocking a state-owned road.
Appropriately, rules also are under development to govern activity on the mountain; further, the notice to proceed includes nine pages of conditions — including many that have been sought by the community.
Among them are the decommissioning of three telescopes, with no new observatories to be constructed on the sites. There are rules to require ride-sharing on much of the campus, a control program for invasive species, habitat restoration for the endangered wekiu bug, a mandated closed wastewater system, a community benefits package, and numerous other provisions.
On June 20, the day Ige announced the notice to proceed, he also noted the removal of four unauthorized structures removed that morning. The issue of structures such as the ‘ahu, or shrines, that have been erected for Hawaiian religious purposes, is a sensitive one that must be resolved.
There is a pledge to do so within the project conditions: Kahu Ku Mauna, a community-based council, will review policies regarding retention of the ‘ahu and submit recommendations within 18 months, according to the document.
The hard-line opposition to the project surely will persist. The goal, with unwavering oversight by UH officials, should be to demonstrate the conduct of astronomy with cultural respect — that it is a wholly compatible pursuit.
“We will proceed in a way that respects the people, place and culture that make Hawaii unique,” Ige rightly said. “We are all stewards of Mauna Kea.”Read the editorial here