Friday, December 04, 2009

Mauna Kea Observatories Update

I have been following news about the future of observatories on Mauna Kea, but haven't had a chance to post anything recently. This is an issue that pitches astronomers, who need the mountain for observing, against an indigenous culture, whose cosmology and origin mythology are intimately linked to the top of the mountain. In addition, some environmental groups oppose the telescopes as the summit plays the sole host to Wekiu bug - a candidate for endangered species list. These are complex issues and some of these groups have been involved in difficult and negotiations. Others are taking a legal recourse.

So here is the current status: Everyone was waiting for the decision regarding the site for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) - the next generation of ground-based telescopes. Last July, the TMT consortium picked Mauna Kea as their preferred location. However, an approval of Comprehensive Management Plan is needed before permits are given for any new telescopes. A conditional approval was granted by the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) last April, but the Board requested that the University of Hawaii (UH) provide more details in the form of four sub-plans within a year. These sub-plans are to address public access, natural resources, cultural resources and the decommissioning of telescopes.

The UH Board of Regents have now approved two of the sub-plans dealing with natural and cultural resources and now they await a review by the BLNR.
The cultural resources management plan gives broader powers to Kahu Ku Mauna, an advisory council of cultural authorities, in managing the mountain.

Kahu Ku Mauna will be given the responsibility of working with Hawaiians toward the development of procedures and protocols for cultural issues.

They will "take the lead" in determining the appropriateness of constructing new Hawaiian cultural features. They will be consulted about the possibility of establishing a buffer zone around known historic sites in the mountain's Astronomy Precinct.

Other provisions would require "on-site monitors" including archaeologists, cultural resources specialists or entomologists during telescope construction, confine tours and stargazing activities to previously disturbed ground surfaces and parking areas, and define areas where snow-related activities can occur.

The natural resources subplan notes that the Office of Mauna Kea Management is considering showing a "mandatory orientation video for anyone who accesses the UH Management Areas." The video, to be shown in English and Japanese, would include a health and safety orientation, an overview of rules and regulations, and the causes of damage to cultural and natural resources.

All visitors and observatory personnel would have to watch the video annually and receive a rear-view mirror tag, good for summit access for one year.

Currently, during periods of good weather there are no restrictions on who can drive to the summit of Mauna Kea, although most visitors leave shortly after sunset so they don't disrupt astronomical observations.
But there are two more sub-plans to be approved, including one about the plans for decommissioning of observatories once they are not in use. The original plan states that the mountain has to be returned to the original state for each of the telescope that is decommissioned - and the cost to be paid by the institute/country running the observatory. This past week these plans were discussed in open houses and you can see a video of the presentation here.

To make things more complicated, Hawaiian and environmental groups that oppose the construction of any new telescopes have filed a lawsuit in the Third Circuit Court and are seeking to reverse the earlier BLNR decision. A few years earlier, the same court sided with the opponents of telescopes and the current Comprehensive Management Plan was a result of that decision. The same judge is presiding over the hearings that are scheduled for this coming December 9th.

Will keep you updated as events unfold in Hawaii.


Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

Save the bug, save the bug!

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