UC should continue supporting Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea

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We agree with The Daily Californian’s editorial board that astronomy on Maunakea is an important topic for the UC system. However, the editorial opposing the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, project massively misinforms readers and marginalizes the voices of Hawaiians and lifelong and recent Hawai’i residents who support this telescope, despite pressure to stay silent — voices like ours.

The editorial begins with a highly incendiary illustration, implying that the construction of the TMT project either completely removes a pu’u (cinder cone) on Maunakea or the top of the mauna itself (with conspicuously white hands). Neither implication is true. As shown in this figure, the site of the TMT project is a flat lava plain far away from culturally significant sites on Maunakea. Its area is roughly equal to the UC system-supported Keck Observatory, minuscule compared to the adze quarry complex created by ancient Hawaiians on Maunakea and dwarfed by Maunakea itself.

Despite the greater cost and technical challenge, the TMT project restricted its building height to only 19%-28% higher than some current 8-meter observatories on Maunakea, in accordance with community concerns. Local, unionized contractors — many of whom we know, many of whom are Hawaiian — will carry out the construction of the TMT.

These and other facts are thoroughly described in the Hawai’i Board of Land and Natural Resources’ decision to issue the TMT project a construction permit, which was upheld by the Hawai’i Supreme Court.

As the record clearly shows, the TMT site is not affiliated with traditional cultural practices nor can the telescope interfere with long-standing practices elsewhere (for example, at Lake Waiau, Pu’u Poliahu). Many Hawaiians, including recently departed Hōkūleʻa Pwo navigator Kalepa Baybayan, testified that the TMT project is consistent with their values and honors their cultural practices. The TMT is a “green” facility and will pay rent to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The TMT project’s permit also requires the decommissioning of 5 older telescopes: a net reduction of telescopes on Maunakea.

The hearings process for the TMT included 44 days of testimony from 71 witnesses, spanning more than five months and documented in more than 6,000 pages of transcripts. It was open to the public, broadcasted and manifestly fair. We know because some of us were there.

If the editors were all from Hawai’i, they would also know that the TMT has provided more than a million dollars in funding for Hawaiian students through the THINK fund and other educational programs, and has supported the Akamai Workforce Initiative focused on Hawai’i-born students. When Kilauea erupted, destroying hundreds of homes on our island, they would have seen the TMT sponsor an educational camp for displaced children. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they would have witnessed the TMT helping supply masks to protect frontline health care workers and social workers and aiding food-insecure families.

The editors would have also seen protesters occupying conservation land to block the TMT project, littering these special sites with abandoned tents, vehicles and refuse and damaging rare plant species. They might wonder, as do many who live in Hawai’i, whether this actually “protects Maunakea.”

Besides getting the facts wrong, the editorial board marginalizes the thousands of Hawaiian voices supporting the TMT. Hawaiians have diverse, not monolithic views on the TMT project. Yes, there are many Hawaiians strongly opposed. But many Hawaiians also strongly support TMT, including public figures such as Baybayan, spiritual authorities such as Leimomi Lum (Kahuna of the Mo’okini heiau), our neighbors, friends and family members in Hawai’i. By typically a 2-to-1 margin, polls show that the TMT is supported by those who call Hawai’i home. Other polls besides the one cited in the editorial find much broader support for the TMT from Hawaiians, somewhere between 46% and 72% in favor of the project.

The construction delay of the TMT project results from many factors, a key one being poor leadership from the State of Hawai’i. For many, protesting against the TMT is a way to raise awareness about historical injustices. These include the state’s failure to fully guarantee homesteading rights to Hawaiians promised as a condition of statehood, anger over the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and frustration with socioeconomic conditions. We agree with protesters on many of these issues, but opposing the TMT does not solve these problems.

Hawai’i governor David Ige and Hawai’i County’s former mayor Harry Kim swore an oath to uphold the law, including the right to peacefully protest and the right to safe, legal access for the TMT’s permitted construction. Unfortunately, the government has neither taken the initiative to solve long-standing injustices nor has it adequately upheld the law granting the TMT access. Kim was voted out of office and found guilty of ethics violations for not upholding the law.

New leadership gives hope. Hawai’i County’s new mayor supports the TMT and equity for Hawaiians. The University of Hawai’i Institute for Astronomy will be led by a community member known for equitable collaboration with the Hawaiian community. The National Science Foundation, a prospective future TMT partner, has shown an acute understanding of the facts about the TMT project and sources of opposition.

We would welcome an honest, fact-based discussion with the UC community, exploring multiple perspectives on the TMT. ImuaTMT has held multiple forums in Hawai’i over the past two years; recently, one of us participated in a “Native Hawaiian Perspectives” panel about Maunakea.

If ultimately some UC system members do not want to use the TMT on Maunakea, that is fine. No one is requiring them to do so. Many well-deserving Hawaiian students would gladly take their place, including some of us.

Amber Imai-Hong, Kauionalani Onodera, Makana Silva, Samuel King, James Mauliola Keaka Stone Jr, LJ Remillard, Jason Chu and Thayne Currie are Hawaiian supporters of the TMT project and allies.