Astronomy, Hawaiian cultural practices and economic realities were major themes yesterday as the state Board of Land and Natural Resources unanimously approved siting the 14th and biggest telescope to date atop Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island.
But the board also granted opponents’ request for a contested case hearing on the Thirty Meter Telescope, giving them one last chance to make their case before a hearing officer and get a final review by the land board.
Before the vote in Honolulu, more than 30 people testified on the telescope plan, which was reviewed by the board for five hours.
About equal numbers of native Hawaiians, teachers, students and other community members spoke for, or against, the 184-foot-tall observatory.
University of Hawaii President M.R.C. Greenwood said she was "very pleased" that the land board granted a conservation district use permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope, and is optimistic that the outcome of the contested case will allow the project to go forward.
Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands Administrator Samuel J. Lemmo said the hope is to have the contested case hearing concluded within six months.
The Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp. of Pasadena, Calif., wants to build one of the biggest and most capable telescopes in the world near the summit of Mauna Kea.
For some proponents, there are clear parallels between the star-guided navigational skills of ancient Hawaiians and the ongoing studies of the cosmos conducted atop 13,796-foot Mauna Kea.
"Yes, Mauna Kea is sacred, and I believe the peaceful work done at the observatories extends and continues this tradition of connecting to the universe," said John Hamilton, a physics and astronomy teacher at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who has observed the stars for 26 years on Mauna Kea.
Celeste Hao, a native Hawaiian and senior in the astronomy program at UH-Hilo, said ancient Hawaiians "used the stars not only for time-keeping, but also for traveling vast oceans." She said the observatory would help rebuild the link between science and culture.
But others said the observatory and 18,000-square-foot support building, to be built about a half-mile northwest and 500 feet below the existing telescopes, would be a further affront and degradation to the sacredness of Mauna Kea.
"When you bulldoze the highest temple, the highest church of a people, we as a society are saying something about what those people are worth," said Miwa Tamanaha, executive director of Kahea: The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance.
Marti Townsend, staff attorney and program director for Kahea, said TMT Observatory is committed to paying a "substantial amount" in exchange for the lease and that those funds would be used for the management of Mauna Kea. "This basically is a pay-to-degrade policy," she said. "There is no pay-to-degrade policy in the state rules. We don’t have the option to let somebody pay in order to destroy the conservation district."
The observatory, with an estimated cost of $1.3 billion, would be within the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, an 11,288-acre area leased by UH from the state for use as a scientific complex.
Lemmo said Department of Land and Natural Resources staff view the project as not having "significant effects" on cultural resources and have determined that it is removed from critical habitat for threatened and endangered species.
TMT Observatory would create construction and operations jobs and has committed to providing $1 million a year for student education programs.
Randy Kurohara, Hawaii County director of the department of research and development, said telescope jobs would keep some of the Big Island’s best and brightest at home and generate $26 million a year in local spending.
Kurohara said Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi believes the TMT Observatory represents "sacred science on a sacred mountain."
Several labor union representatives also testified about the importance of the project.
TMT officials said construction could begin in early 2012 and take about eight years. One existing telescope, the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, is expected to be decommissioned before the TMT would come on line, and officials said several others could be removed, leaving a total of 10 with the TMT.