Fire on the mountain

While astronomers celebrate the addition of another telescope to their prized star-gazing summit in Hawaii, environmentalists and natives mourn the loss of their beloved mountain.

By Alex Salkever
July 30, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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On June 25, some of the world's best astronomers gathered atop 14,000-foot Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii for a scientific love-fest. Representatives from Harvard, UC-Berkeley, the National Astronomical Observatory and the University of Hawaii showed up for the fun. With proud and solemn testimonials they unveiled the Gemini Telescope, the
latest big observatory on the planet's premier place to stargaze.

People were outraged -- or at least some were. The triumphal gathering belied a feud that has erupted over how Mauna Kea is to be managed in the new millennium. The Sierra Club and native Hawaiian groups did not attend the June 25 event. Environmentalists say star-struck scientists are trampling fragile ecosystems. Native Hawaiians say the astronomers
who run the mountaintop are desecrating a profoundly sacred place. For
their part, the astronomers admit some guilt in not listening to concerns, but also
claim they have been blindsided with criticism of projects that were
approved and started a decade ago.


Hanging in the balance is control of the planet's most important
astronomical real estate. "Our people have this one mountain just for them and
[the scientists] are taking it over. That's not right. And that mountain is so sacred.
It is one of a kind," says Reynolds Kamakawiwioole, a native Hawaiian
activist and ardent opponent of further astronomical development. "The
saddest thing is, they never had a chance to sit down with the native

In the Hawaiian language, Mauna Kea means "white mountain" -- a reference to
the shining snowcap the summit wears several months out of the year.
According to the Hawaiian creation chant, the mountain comes from the
union of Papa, the Sky Father, and Wakea, the Earth Mother. Mauna Kea is also
considered the piko (bellybutton) of the world, according to
Polynesian myths recognized around the Pacific.

At the summit, winds whip up to 150 mph and the frigid air gets thin enough to necessitate oxygen masks for visitors; it is an inhospitable
slice of heaven. But consistently clear skies, scant light pollution and
the thinness of the air ensure that, with the right conditions,
telescopes and naked eyes alike can glean more from the night sky than from anywhere else in the world. (The only telescope that tops terrestrial scopes -- and then only in certain parts of the electromagnetic spectrum -- is the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits the planet beyond the distortions of the


Since 1968, scientists have built 13 separate observatories on the summit
under auspices of a 65-year lease from Hawaii's Department of Land
and Natural Resources. The lease assigned use of all the lands on Mauna Kea above
12,000 feet to the University of Hawaii, and created the 11,228-acre Mauna
Kea Science Reserve. The telescopes have cost nearly $1 billion to build, and tens of millions more are spent each year running them. The four newest
telescopes -- the Gemini, the Japanese Subaru Telescope and the Keck I and II observatories -- belong to a new class that boasts powerful
computerized optical systems and reflective mirrors wider than a two-lane highway.

These scopes have the capability to peer back to the very edge of time -- as far back as14 billion light years ago, just after the Big Bang,. Collectively, they represent the majority of the planet's high-end astronomical firepower. "It's the largest collection
anywhere of large telescopes. It's an unbelievable capability and a huge
step up in aperture," says Robert McLaren, interim director of the UH
Institute for Astronomy. His institution has become a world power in
the field, thanks to observation time it receives on these telescopes as part of
the lease agreements. In recent months, Mauna Kea has emitted a steady
stream of groundbreaking astronomical discoveries and eye-popping images, which have brought the stars closer to Earth than ever before.

But the transition from pristine volcanic wasteland to stargazing nirvana
has not been without conflict. In the 1970s pig hunters, conservationists
and native Hawaiians questioned the impact of construction and vehicle
traffic. In the 1980s, the Audubon Society raised a ruckus about the
development of support facilities at the 9,600-foot level that overlapped
the habitat of the palila, an endangered Hawaiian bird. In 1995, the Sierra
Club and several native Hawaiian groups complained about trash on the
summit from telescope construction.


Along the way a deep resentment took shape. Native Hawaiians objected to the astronomers' shiny mushroom domes, which shared the summit with more than 100 pre-contact shrines. "By having these things on Mauna Kea, whether it's buildings, telescopes or antennas, at the
very pu'u or tops of the hills, you ruin the sanctity of the mountain as it
relates to the spirituality of native Hawaiians," says Charles Kauluwehi
Maxwell, a native Hawaiian kahu (pastor) who has been a vocal
opponent of astronomical development.

What shook the Mauna Kea status quo irreversibly, however, was a scorching
State Legislative Auditor report delivered in February 1998. The report
slammed both the university and the state government for negligence on
Mauna Kea with regard to management of cultural sites and environmental
impact. According to the report, promises to hire security and enforcement
personnel to patrol the mountaintop had gone unfulfilled, as had a
promise to complete an archaeological survey of the summit for Hawaiian
cultural sites. Critical habitats had allegedly been damaged during
construction projects on Mauna Kea. "They had a land manager who was
signing documents and construction permits who had never been to the top of
Mauna Kea," says Nelson Ho, a regional vice president for the Sierra Club
and a Big Island resident.


Although they admitted some culpability, the astronomers believed that they were
far from the devils the audit made them out to be. "We weren't hearing the
message," says UH's McLaren. "The Hawaiians weren't speaking out 10 years ago or even five years ago like they [are] today. Required permits for all of the telescope
projects were handled in public meetings. Until 1995, there was essentially
no real complaints or opposition in these meetings," adds McLaren, who
also found fault with the auditor's claims of environmental damage resulting from the astronomers' activities. "It's long on opinion and short on facts to back it up. It reads more like an editorial than an audit," says McLaren.

University of Hawaii is not the first institution to face the
prickly issue of reconciling indigenous cultures with the needs of astronomers. The remote mountaintops that astronomers crave often prove to have been prime real estate for ancient cultures, who were likewise drawn by the clear views of the heavens. University of Arizona astronomers sought out Native American leaders for counsel before planning and building a telescope atop Mount Graham.

"For more than a decade now, we have been talking to the various tribes of
the Southwest and listening to what they want us to do," says Buddy Powell,
assistant director of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory. Although
it took years of dialogue to build up trust, Powell believes that he now
enjoys a strong relationship with the native peoples. "While they have different areas of specific concerns, one thing that comes clear is: Treat the land with dignity and respect. Do not go up there and bulldoze wide spaces. The Great Provider provides the land for our living and for our life. But you must only use that which you
absolutely need."


While it's too late for UH to seek pre-construction counsel, a 23-person advisory
board has begun slogging toward consensus on a new development
plan for Mauna Kea. Its final plans will likely be presented to the
University of Hawaii Board of Regents later this summer. Although
representatives from the astronomy, environmental and native Hawaiian
communities are all present on the board, the year-long process of
closed-door meetings has drawn fire and distrust from those not included.

For their part, the astronomers say they
truly wish to be good neighbors. They have
agreed to a moratorium on further developments atop the summit until the
new management plan is worked out. They have agreed to reduce the parcel
subject to scientific development to 525 acres from the original 11,228, of which only 70 or 80 will likely be developed, according to McLaren. They have forsworn any
building that will affect cinder cones -- significant geological formations
of cultural importance -- on the summit. Part of the management plan also
provides for UH funding of a new management agency that will oversee the
environmental and historical preservation efforts. Finally, a board of
native Hawaiians will advise further developments on the mountaintop.

But the basic reins to Mauna Kea will remain in the hands of UH and the
Board of Regents, a problem for groups that had hoped to get a binding
stake in the final decision process. For some of the native Hawaiians
and environmentalists, the new management plan does not go far enough. They
argue that the existing telescopes and their sponsoring organizations
(which include the California Institute of Technology and the Smithsonian Institution) should cough up cash to help right the past
wrongs. "The whole process is a sham. The board is appointed and it's not
binding. It's like the missionaries all over again ... These white
people come in and do what they want to do without asking anybody," said
one Big Island source who is familiar with the issue and the players.


Will there ever be peace on the mountain? The prospects are grim. There are four
telescopes on Mauna Kea that are at least 20 years old and thus ripe for
replacement. And astronomy is moving toward either
far bigger telescopes, with even larger mirrors, or else arrays of smaller
telescopes (called interferometers) that take up considerable space. For
many native Hawaiians, even one more telescope on Mauna Kea will be too

"I don't think we are ever going to make everybody happy. But what we are
trying to do is have a better dialogue with some of these groups than we
have in the past. Many of the issues that are raised by the Hawaiian
community transcend Mauna Kea. Although Mauna Kea may just be a microcosm
of these issues, it is a big, visible symbol," says McLaren.

Alex Salkever

Alex Salkever is a surfer and writer living in Honolulu.

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