comscore A big boondoggle | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Every act of aloha counts. Click here to DONATE to the MAUI RELIEF Fund.
Island Voices

A big boondoggle

Honolulu Star-Advertiser logo
Unlimited access to premium stories for as low as $12.95 /mo.
Get It Now
    This is an artist’s rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope project, an 18-story-high facility designed to give astronomers a powerful new tool for peering into the heavens from a plateau atop Mauna Kea.
    The Keck Observatory sits on the summit of Mauna Kea. Critics say that adding yet another large telescope to the summit would cause damage to a sensitive environment for little gain.

The University of California and Caltech — backed by billionaire Intel cofounder Gordon Moore — are aggressively campaigning to get Hawaii approvals for the single largest telescope ever proposed for Mauna Kea, the 18-story high Thirty Meter Telescope. Environmentalists, native Hawaiians and cultural practitioners — including Sierra Club, Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, the Royal Order of Kamehameha I and KAHEA — have long opposed further industrialization of the mountain’s conservation district and urged the Californians to build the TMT at their alternative site in Chile (details at

TMT’s massive dome, support building, roads and utilities will devastate a beautiful plateau within a State Historic District, so designated for its cultural sites and significance, and that is habitat for rare and endangered plants and animals. The giant dome will overlook Waimea, creating yet another eyesore visible from coastal and mountaintop areas. Years of construction will bring equipment, noise, dust and windblown construction debris. When completed, TMT will add more noise and visual intrusions that interfere with traditional Hawaiian astronomical and other ceremonies, along with other industrial impacts further damaging Mauna Kea’s beauty and spiritual ambience.

Approving TMT — a pilot project for larger 60-100-meter telescopes — will open up a whole new era of mountain development, especially if Caltech and UC succeed in renegotiating the state’s 1968 Science Reserve lease, which expires in 2033.

Caltech and UC officials claim they can "mitigate" TMT’s impacts, ignoring the fundamental incompatibility of further industrializing this conservation district and sacred terrain where astronomy’s cumulative impacts, by their own analysis, have already been "substantial, adverse and significant."

To drum up public support, UC and Caltech offer a $1 million a year "community benefits package," but that’s far less than the $50 million that could be generated annually if BLNR finally enforced state law requiring fair market lease rents from all observatories for use of state land, long advocated by Hawaiians and environmentalists.

The California telescope’s biggest Hawaii boosters are construction companies eager for lucrative building contracts and UH astronomers keen for TMT telescope time. Union officials are hoping for jobs, but TMT’s 140 permanent positions — many requiring imported professionals — are manini compared with the jobs created by local ventures like the new Big Island Target stores that are hiring four times that number. Hawaii need employment, but industrializing Mauna Kea for a handful of jobs — maybe half going to mainlanders — isn’t the answer.

Despite vigorously lobbying for more telescopes (and getting taxpayers to defend against legal challenges), UH continues to claim it can responsibly manage Mauna Kea — a "fox guarding the hen house" sham environmentalists and Hawaiians have long opposed. The Board of Land and Natural Resources’ continued willingness to let UH police itself — avoiding BLNR’s statutory responsibilities — makes Hawaii’s land management agency little more than a rubber stamp for whatever international astronomy wants, the same unsavory arrangement two legislative audits lambasted.

Also, despite TMT’s millions in federal National Science Foundation funding, UC and Caltech refuse to follow national environmental and cultural laws triggered by U.S. government involvement, the same breach that caused a federal judge to rule against their Keck Outriggers in 2003.

If all this isn’t bad enough, with TMT could come new restrictions on islanders’ access to their beloved mountaintop, including nighttime gate closures and prescreening of all visitors to the summit.

While some political elites have already agreed to California’s project, we’re confident TMT can be stopped, either at this summer’s Board of Regents and BLNR meetings — where islanders will again voice their opposition — or, if need be, in court.

Nelson Ho co-chairs the Sierra Club’s Mauna Kea Issues Committee.


Comments have been disabled for this story...

Click here to view ongoing news coverage of the Maui wildfires. Sign up for our free e-newsletter to get the latest news delivered to your inbox. Download the Honolulu Star-Advertiser mobile app to stay on top of breaking news coverage.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up