Scrapyard: A New Telescope on Mauna Kea?

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye has championed the idea of a new telescope project near the summit of Mauna Kea. The observatory would allow astronomers to peer farther into space than ever before, but has also been criticized as potentially damaging to the culturally and environmentally sensitive site. Is a 30-meter telescope on Mauna Kea a good idea?

Richard Ha

Chair of the 30-meter Telescope Subcommittee of the Hawaii Island Economic Board





I support the 30-meter telescope (tmt). The debate over the telescope isn’t about us anymore; it is about our children and the generations to follow. As global demand for oil outstrips supply, prices continue to rise. Tourism, the economic backbone of our state, is declining because of this and may never recover.

What will future generations do? Are we wise enough to start laying the groundwork so that they will be able to live sustainable lives here?

I am a member of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board, and we’ve made it very clear that the TMT can only happen if it is done properly and if our people clearly benefit from it.

The TMT people are listening, because they are approaching the community with great respect. TMT chair Dr. Henry Yang has personally met with many Hawaiian individuals and groups to learn of their concerns regarding Mauna Kea. The TMT board will use an environmental impact study, along with community input, to address cultural, environmental and carrying-capacity issues.

There will always be some controversy over development on Mauna Kea. But rather than wallowing in the mistakes of decades past, what if, this time, we seize this opportunity to prepare our children for the future?

What if the TMT meant disadvantaged Hawaiian and other students can attend Hawaii Community College and UH Hilo for free?

What if local people get jobs during the years-long construction process?

What if, as the TMT people propose, monies from astronomy on the mountain are collected in perpetuity and put toward our children’s education, in Hawaiian culture and language, traditional ways of sustainability, the sciences, and other areas practical for the future?

These suggestions are being discussed, very seriously, at high levels. We could make them happen as conditions of the telescope coming to Mauna Kea.


Deborah Ward

Co-Chair of the Sierra Club’s Statewide
Mauna Kea Issues Committee





Sen. Daniel Inouye is campaigning for the California Institute of Technology and the University of California to build their giant 30-meter telescope on Mauna Kea instead of in Chile, a site preferred by many astronomers.  To mollify Native Hawaiians, Inouye wants Caltech and UC to pay “mitigation funds” to Hawaiian programs at the Imiloa Astronomy Center, UH Hilo and the Hawaii Community College.

But these benefits do not make the construction of a new telescope a good idea, particularly after 40 years of summit mismanagement, lease violations, and environmental and cultural damage to the mountain. The efforts are far too little, too late, and come on the heels of state and federal court rulings against the last UC/Caltech project.  

The Circuit Court sided with Hawaiians and the Sierra Club to void the Keck Outrigger telescope project’s permit because the Department of Land and Natural Resources failed to create a comprehensive plan “to conserve, protect and preserve the summit area of Mauna Kea.”  A federal judge forced the Keck Outrigger project to follow U.S. law and complete the first federal environmental review in 40 years of astronomy. The document concluded that development had resulted in “significant, adverse and substantial” cumulative impact on cultural and natural resources.  

Rather than pressure Hawaiians to choose between education and desecration, or get UH to cobble together another veiled development plan, Inouye should urge DLNR to follow the law and write a comprehensive conservation management plan.  He could also urge them to follow state law and impose fair market lease rents on existing telescopes, which now pay only one dollar a year.  Lease rent would give DLNR the funds to effectively manage Mauna Kea and repair damage already done.

Rather than building a 30-meter telescope on culturally and environmentally significant land, we should be working to protect Mauna Kea.

(Composed with the assistance of Nelson Ho, of the Sierra Club, and Kealoha Piscotta, of the Mauna Kea Anaina Hou.)