Wednesday, May 06, 2015

More obstacles for The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea

by Salman Hameed

I'm surprised that against all odds, the opposition to TMT continues to gather steam (see earlier posts: here and here). An important development is that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) has now rescinded its support for the project:
The board of trustees in 2009 voted to support Mauna Kea as the site for the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope. Amid mounting opposition after 31 protesters blocking the construction site were arrested earlier this month, the board held a special meeting Thursday to revisit its stance. 
Trustees could have voted to maintain support, oppose the project or rescind the previous position and take a neutral stance. After hours of listening to public comments for and against the project, some trustees said they were ready to vote for rescinding and opposing, but ultimately joined others to only rescind. 
"We have the opportunity to send a strong message that it is no longer business as usual for Hawaiians," said trustee Dan Ahuna. 
Trustee Peter Apo said rescinding without opposing would allow OHA to remain part of the discussion with the goal of eventual decommissioning of other telescopes already on the mountain.
The support of OHA is not legally required for the construction of the telescope, but it certainly puts more pressure on TMT:
It's not clear what effect OHA's position will have on the project. The office is a public agency tasked with improving the well-being of Native Hawaiians. The office would receive a percentage of rent paid for the sublease of the land the University of Hawaii leases from the state. The company building the telescope earlier agreed to extend a construction moratorium. 
"We are naturally disappointed that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has changed its position on the Thirty Meter Telescope project. However, we are by no means discouraged," TMT International Observatory Board Chairman Henry Yang said in a statement. "We must now redouble our commitment to respectfully continuing dialogue and engagement with OHA and all other stakeholders."
Read the full article here.

Last Saturday the New York Times chimed in with a patronizing tone, describing the opposition to telescopes as "militant advocacy" (even though the protests have all been peaceful). The editorial did mention some of root causes of opposition, but then it went ahead and asked the governor of Hawaii to take care of the business:
The protesters don’t speak for all Hawaii residents, or even all Native Hawaiians, many of whom embrace the telescope. But it is easy to understand why they may feel fed up. Mauna Kea is a site of wonderment even before night falls and the stars come out by the billions. It is a habitat for threatened insects and birds, and rich in precious archaeological sites. It also has been stressed for decades. 
The University of Hawaii, which has managed the mountaintop since 1968 under a lease from the state, has at times been a sloppy steward. An embarrassing state audit in 1998 cited its failures to protect the summit’s fragile ecology and cultural resources as it oversaw the development of a sprawling complex of more than a dozen observatories there. Over the decades it has collected little to no rent from its many scientific tenants. (The Thirty Meter Telescope is to be the rare exception, paying up to $1 million a year.)
Mr. Ige, who has been far too withdrawn in this confrontation, needs to step up. If he thinks the telescope is an important asset that promises great benefits to Hawaii’s residents and economy, not to mention to science and humanity at large, he should say so. If he thinks more needs to be done to protect the environment and native interests, he should say what that is and make it happen. His mild news releases urging more dialogue are not enough.
And as a parting shot, it used the Polynesian past to urge the protestors (not the astronomers...) to come to an understanding:
Coexistence may never satisfy the core group of protesters who have been demanding the total erasure of technology from Mauna Kea’s peak. What is tragic is the missed opportunity for shared understanding, given that many of these protesters are themselves descendants of some of history’s greatest astronomers, Polynesian wayfinders who set out across the Pacific a millennium ago, guided by the stars and currents, to find Mauna Kea in the first place.
And for an even less enlightening NYT article, see this one from last year where George Johnson brings in Galileo and connects the TMT issue to that of simply science versus religion. You can guess the content and tone of the article from the title: Seeking Stars, Finding Creationism


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