The million-year-old mountain Mauna Kea rises broad-shouldered and statuesque out of the crystalline waves of the Pacific. Lush forests blanket its base, while sparse clouds buffet its rocky, windswept upper slopes, so high they are often gilded with snow even in balmy Hawaii. A long-dormant volcano formed by magma oozing up from the Earth’s interior, Mauna Kea looms nearly 14,000 feet above the surface of the ocean and more than six miles above the sea floor, making it the world’s tallest mountain from base to peak.
It is a sublime specimen of a mountain; everyone thinks so — environmentalists who prize its unique ecology, astronomers who gaze skyward from its soaring peak, native Hawaiians who consider its summit the dwelling place of gods.
“Mauna Kea kuahiwi ku ha‘o i ka mälie,” goes an ancient Hawaiian saying — “Mauna Kea is the astonishing mountain that stands in the calm.”
But lately the prized peak has been gripped by conflict. A proposal to install a revolutionary $1.4 billion telescope at Mauna Kea’s summit has led to a bitter standoff among those who value it most, pitting scientists from some of the world’s most powerful and prominent research centers against a small but tenacious group of cultural and environmental activists.
As the controversy spread across the state, into the press and onto social media, it has evoked both rancor and introspection about cultural sensitivity in the scientific community. Some scientists have compared telescope opposition to religious fanaticism and accused critics of preventing progress; others questioned whether the construction of the telescope is colonialism of a different sort. Meanwhile, Hawaii residents of all ethnicities are fiercely debating whether benefits brought by the project — jobs, tourism, a $1 million-per-year lease, better views of the universe’s outer reaches and distant path than any we’ve seen before — outweigh the potential costs to their cultural heritage.
The telescope, which will see as much as 100 times farther and more clearly than anything that has come before, allowing astronomers to gaze deep into the universe’s past and out toward its most distant reaches, is backed by institutions in the United States, Canada, China, India and Japan, as well as the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in San Francisco.
Its opponents are mostly local leaders who have thrown lawsuits, petitions and sometimes their own bodies in the path of construction.
And lately, the opponents seem to be gaining ground. Work on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) — named for the diameter of its enormous, light-gathering mirror — has been disrupted since workers broke ground on the project last fall. In early April, hundreds of protesters gathered at the mountain’s visitors center and summit in an effort to blockade work crews. More than 30 were arrested, triggering more demonstrations across the state and pushing Gov. David Ige (D) to postpone construction briefly.
Ige has at times seemed both sympathetic to and frustrated by the protesters. After the initial protests in April, he acknowledged that the state and the scientists who work on the mountaintop “have not done right by a very special place.”
“What can we do to be better stewards of the mountain?” he asked in a statement released in late May. His answer was to establish a cultural council to help manage the mountain and reduce the number of telescopes at the summit before the TMT is installed, among other initiatives.
But those concessions were not enough to placate protesters. When the TMT Observatory Corporation moved to resume work last week, hundreds more demonstrators crowded the road to the summit, waving flags and singing songs as construction vehicles attempted to inch past them. Some left boulders and stone altars, or ahu, in the middle of the road; others camped at the construction site overnight. A dozen protesters were arrested, and construction was delayed yet again. The road was still closed Tuesday morning as crews worked to remove the impediments left behind after the protests.
The Hawaii Supreme Court is due to hear oral arguments in a case challenging the TMT’s state-awarded permit in August.
This is not the first time that Mauna Kea has been the focus of debate. Ever since 1968, when the first plans for a telescope on the rocky mountaintop were announced, construction there has been met with fierce opposition. Now there are 13 telescopes dotting the mountain’s lofty heights, and for the most part native Hawaiians consider each of them a desecration.
That’s because Mauna Kea is one of the most important natural landmarks in Hawaiian culture, which flourishes in the islands despite efforts by missionaries in the 19th century to suppress it. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, who ruled Hawaii before the United States annexed the islands in 1898, now represent only 10 percent of the state’s population.
According to Kealoha Pisciotta, a native Hawaiian activist who is one of six plaintiffs contesting the TMT’s land-use permits, the mountain is considered to be the place where the sky and earth separated to form the heavens and where the mother and father of the Hawaiian race first met. It is home to more than 250 shrines and burial sites, and in centuries past its summit was so revered that only high chiefs and priests were allowed to ascend it.
“Mauna Kea in every respect represents the zenith of the Native Hawaiian people’s ancestral ties to Creation itself,” she wrote in a post for the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance. “… When the land, the waters, the life forms suffer, we feel this suffering, the process of creation begins to un-ravel and de-creation begins. The law, the kanawai, is broken. We lose our place in time and space and then we are lost.”
Pisciotta has ties to both sides of the debate, she told Scientific American. For more than a decade she worked as a technician on one of the mountain’s many telescopes. Meanwhile, she maintained a family shrine near the summit and led a cultural heritage group called Mauna Kea Anaina Hou. Though she has long believed in the importance of “star knowledge,” she said, recent problems on the mountain have led her to believe that more telescopes cannot coexist with Mauna Kea’s cultural treasures.
“I have always supported astronomy,” Pisciotta wrote in her piece for the environmental alliance. “However, I do not believe it is of so much importance that it should be allowed to overtake and destroy everything else in its wake.”
Activists like Pisciotta believe that the proposed telescope, which will be 18 stories tall and far larger than anything else on the summit, will mar the mountain’s natural beauty and spiritual power. They also say it will threaten the rare and fragile ecosystems that flourish there — an alpine tundra at the highest altitudes, forests inhabited by more than a dozen endangered species on the lower slopes — even though an environmental impact assessment found otherwise.
Project managers say they’ve done all that they can to mitigate the telescope’s impact. They organized dozens of community meetings to gather input from locals, have made a commitment to hire people in the community and promised $1 million per year to support science and technology education on the island. And, they say, they have gone through all the necessary legal channels to get the project approved, including the environmental assessment.
“Look, we made a lot of adjustments in how we do business there,” Michael Bolte, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California at Santa Cruz and one of the main U.S. organizers for the TMT, told BuzzFeed in April. “But there are zero legal barriers here. Someone standing in front of your bulldozer is not a legal issue.”
In April, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley (the school is one of the partners on the TMT project) e-mailed a petition in favor of the telescope to dozens of colleagues. It included an e-mail from another scientist saying that “the Thirty-Meter Telescope is in trouble, attacked by a horde of native Hawaiians who are lying about the impact of the project on the mountain and who are threatening the safety of TMT personnel.”
The e-mail, and the notion of Native Hawaiians as a “horde,” even though their ancestors have lived on the islands for centuries, prompted accusations of racism.
A controversial column for the New York Times last October by science writer George Johnson went even further, calling native activism like the telescope opposition or repatriation of ancestral bones a “turn back toward the dark ages.”
Those accusations have only made Hawaiians angrier.
“Any time Hawaiians — or any other native people, for that matter — come out in force to push for more respect for our culture and language or to protect our places from this kind of destruction, we are dismissed as relics of the past, unable to hack it in the modern world with our antiquated traditions and practices,” Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, a native Hawaiian and a PhD student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, wrote in a post for the Hawaiian writers’ blog Ke Kaupu Hehi Ale. Kuwada argues that the TMT’s backers, not its opponents, are the ones showing lack of foresight — moving ahead with a project without consideration of its history or its meaning to future generations.
In April, a group of dozens of scientists issued a statement on the Web site Medium condemning “racist language in astronomy and physics.”
The TMT is just the latest in a long line of research projects that have come into conflict with cultural groups. Often, the very qualities that make sites valuable to science — remote location, soaring summits, unparalleled views — are what drew native worshipers to them in the first place. The 1980s saw a bitter fight over a telescope on the peak of Mount Graham, the highest point in Arizona and a sacred site to the San Carlos Apache. The telescope was eventually built. In the mid-2000s, the Tohono O’odham Nation successfully sued to stop the construction of several additional telescopes at Kitt Peak Observatory southwest of Tucson.
Daniel Lopez, a language professor at Tohono O’odham Community College, told the Arizona Daily Star at the time, “We have names for the mountains, we have songs, we sing about them.”
In Mauna Kea’s case, the mountain’s history has some astronomers — even those who have benefited from the observatories already there — questioning whether this one is really worth it.
Emily Rice, an assistant professor of astrophysics at the College of Staten Island who used the mountain’s Keck telescope for much of her graduate work, tweeted in April: “I’m not strictly pro or anti TMT. I really want it to be built (awesome science & engineering!), but not the way it’s being done.”
“Astronomy is awesome, but it’s not life or death,” read another tweet. “We can take the time to do things right & set an example.”
Correction: An initial version of this story incorrectly stated that Gov. David Ige postponed construction on the TMT for two months. He only delayed work a week, and the TMT voluntarily delayed for an additional two months to conduct consultations.