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Mauna Kea documentary airs site's controversies

By Kimberly Shigeoka
Ka Leo Associate Features Editor
October 06, 2004

Over three decades of controversy has surrounded the building of astronomical telescopes on Mauna Kea, located on the island of Hawai'i.

A new documentary entitled "Mauna Kea: Temple under Siege" will show a Native Hawaiian perspective towards Mauna Kea's development on Oct. 22 at the Hawai'i International Film Festival.     

Activists worry that developments such as these telescopes could endanger species like the Weiku Bug.

The first telescope on Hawai'i was built in 1968. Within two years, the University of Hawai'i's telescopes, UH 2.2m and UH 0.6m, sat on Mauna Kea's summit.

The modest start of modern astronomy on Mauna Kea lead to the 13 telescopes now on the mountain. Of these, the Submillimeter Array, although listed as a single telescope, consists of eight small structures.

The state of Hawai'i leased UH the land under the Mauna Kea telescopes. But in 2000, a legislative examination of the telescopes harshly criticized UH's management of Mauna Kea.

The audit said UH was "inadequate to ensure the protection of natural resources. The university focused primarily on the development of Mauna Kea and tied the benefits gained to its research program. The university's control over public access was weak and its efforts to protect natural resources were piecemeal. The university neglected historic preservation, and the cultural value of Mauna Kea was largely unrecognized."

Following the report, UH created the Mauna Kea Science Reserve "Master Plan." Under this plan, UH created a Big Island based management group, the Office of Mauna Kea Management (OMKM) and Kahu Ku Mauna Council (KKMC). OMKM's responsibilities include orchestration of park rangers and new projects on the mountain. KKMC, an advisory group comprised of native Hawaiian activists, is meant to bring Hawaiian issues to UH's attention.

On Sept. 24 as part of the UH and Bank of Hawai'i Cinema Series, a documentary entitled "Mauna Kea: Temple under Siege" was shown at the Architecture Auditorium. The documentary described the cultural and religious importance of Mauna Kea to Native Hawaiians.

According to Native Hawaiian beliefs, Mauna Kea is the birth place of the world and is the home of many water gods and goddesses.

After the showing of "Mauna Kea: Temple under Siege," the cinema series held a question-and-answer session with the directors of the film and the coordinator of the cinema series. Observers in the audience voiced their concerns for Mauna Kea and rejected further development.

One audience member asked, "You're preaching to the choir, why aren't any of those for development here today? Were they invited?"

In reply, Don Brown, the coordinator of the series, said, "We did invite the UH Institute for Astronomy (IFA) to this showing. They asked that we show a second film that had run on PBS. Due to time constraints we weren't able to do that."

Kahea, a Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, also was at the showing to promote public participation in the management of Mauna Kea. Kahea spoke about the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (Draft EIS) of NASA's Outrigger Project -- a statement created by NASA in accordance to Federal Law following a lawsuit brought by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

While the UH "Master Plan" was being developed back in 2000, NASA began preliminary research on the Outrigger Project into expanding their jointly-owned Keck observatory on Mauna Kea.

NASA is now in the process of receiving Federal and State Permits as well as permission from the UH Board of Regents to build four to six more telescopes as outlined in the Outrigger Project.

The IFA has filed a Conservation District Use Application (CDUA) for NASA, which is necessary to receive a state permit. "We took the initiative (to file the CDUA) because we think (the Outrigger Project) is scientifically important," said Director of the IFA Rolf Kudritzki.

He said the Outrigger Project is necessary for research by students and faculty.

"Each time a new telescope is added, it creates a significant impact on the cultural and spiritual ambiance of our sacred mountain," said KKMC Spokesman Edward Stevens. "We say do not build new ones, make better use of what they now have by upgrading with the best technology available and share it with the others."

"Tremendous advances have been made whereby fiber optic cables now make it possible for remote viewing," Stevens continued. "By upgrading existing telescope facilities that are nearing obsolescence, with the best technology available, this would mitigate the need for more new ones."

The Native Hawaiian community has also voiced concerns regarding the Wekiu bug, hydrology and confusion regarding the state approval of the UH "Master Plan."

The Wekiu bug is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Many believe we don't know enough about the Wekiu Bug's natural habitat and development. According to the draft EIS, NASA will fund a Wekiu Bug autecology study to gather more information as part of their Wekiu Bug Mitigation Plan under the Outrigger Project.

Also, the draft EIS, in regards to hydrology, states, "cracks and clinker zones would act as a natural "trickling filter" treatment process to break down and/or absorb nutrients (from wastewater). Actual nutrient reductions would likely be more than 90 percent."

Kahea wrote in pamphlets criticizing Mauna Kea development, "There are significant flaws to the Draft EIS. It fails to reflect unbiased science with respect to the Wekiu bug and the hydrology. The data presented is not peer reviewed and omits recent scientific review panel findings. The hydrology information is seriously insufficient."

Kudritzki said, "The effects to the Wekiu Bug will be mitigated, and there will be no impact on hydrology as stated in the Draft EIS. In the CDUA, hydrology is not a case and there is a small impact on the Wekiu Bug."

"The 4-6 telescopes proposed are practically on the Keck parking lot," Kudritzki continued. "I would like specific arguments. The arguments I've heard so far I thought weren't convincing. Kahea and those at the Draft EIS hearings did not show convincing arguments."

There is a disagreement between activists and supporters of Mauna Kea's development over whether or not the UH "Master Plan" needs to be approved by the State Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

Sam Lemmo, administrator of the DLNR's Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, said the "Master Plan" created in 2000 by UH and approved by the Board of Regents is under the jurisdiction of the university and not the DLNR.

He said that within the "Master Plan" is the "Management Plan" which was already in effect before the UH overhaul in 2000. According to Lemmo, the "Management Plan" is under the jurisdiction of the DLNR and was previously approved. This is the only part of the "Master Plan" that the state has any rule over. The "Master Plan" is a UH document that allows the university to govern its lease land.

Many activists against further development disregard UH's "Master Plan" and the steps that are being taken to correct years of "inadequacies" because they believe it has no power with state approval (via BLNR).

NASA spokesman Don Savage said, "If NASA decides to locate the Outrigger Telescopes Project at the W. M. Keck Observatory site on Mauna Kea, the project will be consistent with the 'Master Plan' and comply with all state regulatory requirements." This would mean that despite the confusion surrounding the "Master Plan," NASA will be following the regulations stated in it.

Edward Stevens of the Kahu Ku Mauna Council said, "Since the late 1960's up to the late 1990's, there was a serious lack of communication between astronomy endeavors (DLNR and UH), Hawaiian communities and Hawaiian organizations. Major changes have occurred as new people move into key positions within the University and the UH Board of Regents, where positive dialogue is now taking place."  


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