After protests and a judge's ruling brought the colossal Thirty Meter Telescope project to a halt, a state panel has cleared the way for its construction atop Mauna Kea to proceed.

On September 29th, after five months of public hearings that involved 71 witness testimonies and a review of more than 800 submitted documents, the Board of Land and Natural Resources for the state of Hawai'i announced its decision to allow the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea to resume.

Aerial view of Thirty Meter Telescope
This artist's conception shows an aerial view of the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of Mauna Kea.

An earlier BLNR ruling had also approved the $1.4 billion project, but it was a controversial decision and construction ground to a halt in 2015 after a string of protests blocked access to the mountain's summit. Then last December, Third Circuit Court judge Greg Nakamura ruled that TMT’s sublease agreement with the University of Hawai'i at Hilo for the site was invalid because the BLNR should have held a separate hearing regarding the lease.

Yesterday's BNLR announcement, made after a 5-to-2 vote by its members, means that construction of the TMT can proceed. However, that's unlikely because opponents plan to appeal the decision to the Hawai'i Supreme Court. Pending that appeal, no protests on the mountain have materialized yet. However, the Hawai'i Unity & Liberation Institute declared, "As daunting of a task it might be to stop construction of the TMT, we have once again been left with no choice but to resist and take matters back into our own hands."

TMT protest on April 2, 2015
Arrested protesters chant before police remove them from the summit of Mauna Kea on April 2, 2015.
Occupy Hawaii

Indigenous Hawaiians consider Mauna Kea sacred, and it has long been the site of religious ceremonies and burials. Its slopes are dotted with shrines, offering altars, and hidden burial grounds. Yet the summit, 13,802 feet (4,207 meters) high, has long been prized by astronomers for its pristine, nearly cloud-free access to the night sky.

Thanks to a series of agreements, stretching back to 1968, the state has allowed the University of Hawai'i to develop and manage observatories on a 65-acre "science reserve" at the summit. The latest version of the management plan, from 2009, specifies terms for the 13 facilities now in place.

But TMT is not just another telescope. Its dome will be 218 feet (66 m) across and 180 feet (55 m) high. Ordinarily, that would be easily visible from much of the Big Island. However, explains Tom Geballe (Gemini Observatory), "The TMT site is on a lava plain several hundred feet of elevation below the summit and will be visible from very few locations on the island. It will not even be visible from the summit itself (unlike many of the other telescopes)."

Aside from its sheer size, opponents argued that construction would disturb sacred sites and that, once completed, its day-to-day operation might contaminate the summit.

The Ruling's Caveats

In allowing the construction of TMT to move forward, the state board's 345-page report concluded that the TMT project satisfied eight key criteria covering appropriate land use, conservation, and environmental concerns. As the ruling pointedly notes in its preface, "The TMT will not pollute groundwater, will not damage any historic sites, will not harm rare plants or animals, will not release toxic materials, and will not otherwise harm the environment. It will not significantly change the appearance of the summit of Mauna Kea from populated areas on Hawai‘i Island."

Speaking to reporters during the announcement, BNLR chairperson Suzanne Case addressed opponents' contention that the TMT would infringe on religious rights. "Under the federal and state constitutions," she stated, "a group's religious beliefs cannot be given veto power over the use of public land."

However, after carefully weighing the many objections raised during the public hearings, the board also imposed 43 special conditions. Among them:

  • Three existing telescopes will be decommissioned and removed from the summit, with no other telescopes replacing them. Although the report doesn't say so specifically, plans are already well under way to remove the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and a domed 0.7-m teaching telescope called Hoku Kea. The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope is a rumored third candidate.
  • Two more existing facilities, including the Very Long Baseline Array antenna, must be removed by the end of 2033.
  • All project employees must receive mandatory cultural and natural-resources training.
  • TMT must adopt a "Zero Waste Management" policy, trucking all waste products off the summit.
  • The project must contribute $1 million annually, in addition to the $2½ million it has provided each year since 2014, to community projects on the Big Island.

Some of these requirements, especially the removal of existing telescopes, closely follow a 10-point "Path Forward" request that Governor David Ige made to the University of Hawai'i in May 2015.

A statement by the University of Hawai'i about the BNLR decision notes, in part, "The university first applied for this permit seven years ago, and we believe this decision and the underlying vote represent a fitting and fair reflection of an issue that has divided many in the community who care deeply about Maunakea."

Meanwhile, the possibility remains that TMT will not be built in Hawai'i at all. Project officials had looked at other potential sites, both north and south of the equator, and had homed in on La Palma in the Canary Islands as a suitable location. However, for now Mauna Kea remains the most desirable site. That could change pending opponent's challenges before the state's Supreme Court.




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Anthony Barreiro

September 29, 2017 at 7:39 pm

Thank you Kelly for this thorough and well balanced report. I sincerely hope the Thirty Meter Telescope can be built in a way that respects native Hawaiian cultural rights and gives maximum benefit to the local community and economy.

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October 1, 2017 at 1:30 am

I have never heard anyone explain exactly what "sacred" means...other than vague, subjective or mystical descriptions that do not seem to have any legal bearing.

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Anthony Barreiro

October 2, 2017 at 3:05 pm

Sacred beliefs and practices may seem vague, subjective, or mystical to you, but they do have legal bearing:

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January 25, 2018 at 4:26 pm

It's also important to remember that the protestors and those who oppose the TMT do not represent the majority of Hawaiian Kanaka Maoli. The majority welcome the TMT, it's mission and benefits it will provide to the local community. In the second contested hearing several of the cultural practitioners admitted that they had never conducted ceremonies or even been to the Northern Plateau prior to the TMT proposing to build on it. No artifacts have been found on the proposed site and ancient Hawaiians did not keep written records at the time. I'm not sure how the Northern Plateau is legally defined is sacred. For the protestors this is more about maintaining sovereignty and having Hawaii de-occupied by the United States.

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July 12, 2019 at 9:07 pm

Too bad advanced science must succumb to the primitive.

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The Myth

September 30, 2017 at 11:33 am

Why bother? I understand the computer assisted telescopes have atmospheric correction, but wouldn't it be worth it to build the next generation space telescope? Put it out even farther in space....who cares about the time delay in messaging if you get more detailed information.

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Howard Ritter

October 1, 2017 at 7:41 pm

The mission of a space telescope is such that signal-transmission time is of no importance. Just to make the most obvious points: The principal advantage of the TMT will be its enormous light-gathering power, enabling very deep exposures or high-speed throughput. Thirty meters of aperture has about 150 times the light-gathering power of the Hubble Space Telescope and 20 times that of the Webb Space Telescope; space telescopes, with no airglow to contend with, can reach similar faint objects but only with literally weeks of cumulative exposure time, severly limiting throughput. The projected cost of the TMT is about one-seventh the currently estimated cost of the JWT (nearing $9B) and one-third that of HST. Both space telescopes ran many times over budget and years late; an optical next-generation space telescope larger than JWT would probably not be realized within 20 years or for less than $20B, would never be approved in the current economic and political environment for NASA, already preoccupied with developing multiple projects, would still have nowhere near the faint-target capability of the TMT with simlar observing times, and might exceed the capacity of even the heaviest lifter then current so that it would have to be manually assembled on orbit, probably adding billions to the cost. An NGST would be inaccessible, unrepairable, un-upgradeable, and would risk its entire budget on the success of a single launch, already a serious concern with JWT, or worse, on the success of each of multiple launches.

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October 2, 2017 at 4:05 pm

The great mystery seems to be when the sacred and, conversely, the definition of offensive, have gone beyond the limits of rationality. I suspect, however, that the limits are more widely recognized than many will admit.

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Danny Cosat

January 8, 2018 at 12:22 pm

"The project must contribute $1 million annually, in addition to the $2½ million it has provided each year since 2014, to community projects on the Big Island."
- Wow! Sounds to me like "sacred" has a price tag. Makes me wonder how sacred it really is???

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