Column: Ige acts to defend TMT’s false narrative
Despite decades of community worry about observatories overwhelming the islanders’ beloved mountain, Thirty Meter Telescope officials portray their embattled Mauna Kea telescope as an innocent victim of a clash between science and religion, progress versus the past, or as a whipping boy for colonial sins they had nothing to do with.
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Despite decades of community worry about observatories overwhelming the islanders’ beloved mountain, Thirty Meter Telescope officials portray their embattled Mauna Kea telescope as an innocent victim of a clash between science and religion, progress versus the past, or as a whipping boy for colonial sins they had nothing to do with. Now, under Gov. David Ige’s orders, state and county police (with anticipated National Guard backup) defend that false narrative.
Astronomers began employing this narrative after Big Islanders cried foul in the late 1990s when the University of Hawaii audaciously proposed adding over 100 telescopes and antennas to the complex they’d already built by flouting state and federal laws — and with a wink and a nod from state officials.
As an early astronomy guide for the observatories, I heralded the Mauna Kea astronomers’ trailblazing research and admired their noble science without question. But I’m less naive now, having watched 30 years of this controversy close-up, including from inside their community.
What I discovered is that two less-discussed — and less honorable — forces fuel the conflict much more than astronomers’ worthy research aspirations.
The first is the uncompromising academic ambition of TMT’s progenitors — the University of California, the California Institute of Technology and Caltech’s billionaire alum and prime TMT donor, Gordon Moore of Intel fame. With UC and Caltech’s twin Kecks no longer the world’s largest telescopes, they desperately need an observatory that can compete with two giants now being built by other universities in Chile (one significantly larger than TMT). How Moore (who owns a house on the Big Island) feels about moving his personal legacy telescope outside America is anyone’s guess since he’s avoided media scrutiny throughout the controversy.
TMT officials could instantly end the community division they’ve created by simply siting their telescope in the Canary Islands, where they’ve already secured permits and there’s no public uproar. While that lower elevation site might slightly diminish their competitive edge in the 21st century, their broader public reputation would gain ground.
The second force is the ever-present political clout of Hawaii’s construction industry, long annoyed that Big Islander activists — through public outcry and litigation — waylaid every Mauna Kea telescope project since the Smithsonian Submillimeter Array saw first light in 2002. For those companies, millions of dollars in profit are at stake.
No wonder that it’s been fairly rare for elected officials to openly side with telescope opponents: among them, former state Rep. Andrea Tupola and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard against the TMT; and back in the 1970s, Big Island Mayor Herbert Matayoshi, who first called the telescopes “pimples” marring the island’s landmark mountain.
Since the 1990s, many Big Islanders have turned out in droves at numerous hearings to ask for only one thing — that the constant addition of telescopes cease on the already crowded mountaintop. For years, their plea was consistently ignored by astronomers, the University of Hawaii and the state Board of Land and Natural Resources — to the detriment of all their reputations. Given that history, why wouldn’t Native Hawaiians and other community members take to the barricades?
Gov. Ige, never one to challenge the state’s construction industry or chambers of commerce, unsurprisingly supports the TMT. But to carry out the massive enforcement action announced on July 10 — against his own citizens and on behalf of Hawaii’s business community, ambitious California astronomers and a high-tech mogul — puts him in a morally precarious position from which neither he, nor his legacy, will ever recover.
Tom Peek, a former Mauna Kea observatory guide, is a novelist and writing teacher on the Big Island.