Science & Sacredness

The Maui News
Sunday, April 02, 2006


PUKALANI – Can too much science compromise a sacred place?

That question would be put to the test if a 140-foot telescope facility – the equivalent of a 14-story building – is allowed to be built atop the summit of Haleakala, adding to the growing cluster of observatories, towers, antennae and support structures that are slowly taking over the peak of a mountain considered hallowed ground by many Native Hawaiians.

The housing for the $175 million Advanced Technology Solar Telescope would become the tallest building on Maui, and it will be plainly visible from sea level, 10,000 feet below. The facility would be positioned near a large Air Force telescope that has been roundly criticized as being an eyesore.

"We're not disputing the spirituality, the majesty of Haleakala," said Charisse Carney-Nunes, assistant general counsel for the National Science Foundation, which would fund construction of the telescope. "All that is indisputable. We're not disputing that if the proposal goes forward, it won't have an affect on Haleakala, but we want to know how might that impact be resolved."

Scientists and consultants for the project spent two evenings last week trying to convince the Maui community that the benefits of being home to the world's largest solar telescope would outweigh the intrusions. Those in attendance, however, remained skeptical. Carney-Nunes asked residents to help resolve the impacts by making one of three choices: avoid (not build at all), minimize or mitigate.

Nearly everyone who spoke Monday night in Haiku or Tuesday night in Pukalani seemed united – avoid Haleakala.

"Go back to your maps and find another location," said Mary Evanson, expressing the position of The Friends of Haleakala National Park. "Pleeeeease."

Even those who had offered ways to minimize or mitigate the effects of the massive structure had a long list of recommendations related to cultural sensitivity or were simply making other suggestions because they had given up hope that the project could be stopped.

Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., who was hired to do the cultural report for the science foundation, said he still opposed the telescope, just as he has opposed previous telescopes on Haleakala, but he said he felt the project would go ahead anyway. Maxwell recommended that, if the telescope gets approved, developers agree to create a center for traditional Hawaiian navigation and astronomy on Maui so that at least the community would get something in return.

"It's probably going to get built, whether we like it or not," said Maxwell. "If you had years of fighting these people and you always wind up with nothing like I have, you'd think differently. If they're going to build it, think of the future. I'm thinking of future generations, so they can prosper."

But others were prepared to draw a hard line in the lava.

"As far as the trade-offs, . . . I refuse to have Haleakala prostituted for the sake of this project," said Ed Lindsey. "We have laws against digging up burials, but we don't have laws about desecrating areas sacred to native people."

It wasn't the first time the telescope has been presented to the Maui community – and it won't be the last. Laws require that native people must be consulted if resources they consider to be culturally significant will be impacted by actions of a federal agency. But Lindsey said he felt that not enough notice had been given to Native Hawaiians about the meetings last week.

Charlie Fein of KC Environmental Inc., the environmental consulting firm on Maui, said better efforts would be made for the next round of hearings, which could begin as early as May 1. Keahi Bustamente, who helps to restore native forests, suggested that a meeting be held at the community center in Paukukalo, closer to a Hawaiian homestead community.

Funding for the telescope, proposed by the National Solar Observatory, has not yet been approved. That will be a decision made later by the National Science Board, the federal Office of Management and Budget and, ultimately, Congress, which will appropriate the money.

Members of the public will have other opportunities to comment, as well. Project developers must complete an environmental impact statement and obtain a conservation district use permit from the state Board of Land and Natural Resources. The telescope would be the latest facility to be added to the 18-acre site atop Haleakala that's often referred to as "Science City." The property, under the jurisdiction of the University of Hawaii, is designated as state conservation land.

Although the audiences last week were small – there might have been more Mainland scientists and consultants than Maui folks on hand – the controversy brought out concerned residents not often associated with taking stands.

Kiope Raymond, a Hawaiian language instructor at Maui Community College, pointed out the "cultural paradigm differences" between a Mainland science project and the sacred lands of Native Hawaiians. Raymond said he would be "negatively affected and offended" if yet another telescope were built atop Haleakala.

"There's too many buildings up there," said Raymond, adding that the thought of adding a 14-story-high structure to the mix was "heartbreaking."

The Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, shaped something like a giant canister, would rise 143 feet above ground and be painted a gleaming white against the black lava of the summit. The foundation would extend another 40 feet below the surface. While it was obvious that the purpose of the telescope would be to study the sun, there were questions at the gatherings as to how the science learned would improve the lives of Mauians or even the world in general.

Craig Foltz, program director for the telescope, acknowledged that the benefits might not be obvious. Foltz said the acquired science would probably result in "very little" measurable impact on Maui folks or even on "civilization at large," but that the positive impacts of the knowledge gained from the telescope would grow in the future.

Clearly enthusiastic about the project that would provide close-up views of explosive sunspots, Foltz urged the community to think of the possibilities of what mysteries the telescope might eventually unlock.

The unknown qualities of the sun "are important enough that the development of a large solar telescope was a recommendation of the entire solar physics and astronomy community," said Foltz.

The University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy was a part of that community.

Foltz also said the project would bring good jobs and other educational benefits to Maui.

But Mikahala Helm wasn't convinced that those arguments were good enough to sacrifice another piece of the great mountain.

"Once again, the needs of science are seen as more important than the needs of the Hawaiian people," she said. "This (the telescope) will continue to cause spiritual and physical damage to our majestic Haleakala."

The sheer enormity of the telescope – combined with the blinding color – seem to be its biggest drawbacks. Even the most intense hotel zoning districts on Maui limit structures to 12 stories – and only then if there are no other restrictions imposed by the community plans.

Haleakala was chosen from more than 70 sites around the world as the best location for the telescope. The primary reasons, according to project director Jeremy Wagner, were the lack of dust and the remarkably deep blue skies that seem to stretch from one end of the horizon to the other during usually clear weather.

Foltz said the National Science Foundation had "spent more time" with the Maui community than it typically does when presenting such proposals, proving that the agency wasn't taking the impacts of the project "lightly."

Warren Shibuya, who grew up on Maui and recently moved back after retiring from the Space & Missiles Systems Center in California, supported the project but offered an eloquent plea that "proper cultural respect" be demonstrated because the science facilities would be "sharing very sacred summit grounds."

Shibuya urged university officials to "immediately remove intrusive, unused or excess facilities, poles, antennae, lines signs and roads" while restoring the summit to its "ancient topology" and "its historic and highly sacred configuration." He also said the telescope project's plans to drive 40-foot concrete pilings into the lava were akin to "driving spears into revered native grounds" and that an alternative method of creating the foundation should be explored.

A draft environmental impact statement is tentatively scheduled to be released at the end of April. If the project eventually gets funded, the earliest that construction would begin is late 2008. The telescope would not be ready for its first look at the sun until 2014.

Proposals to resolve the impacts on Haleakala can be sent to Fein at KC Environmental Inc., P.O. Box 1208, Makawao 96768; or to Foltz at the National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Blvd., Room 1045, Arlington, Va. 22230. Comments must be received by April 24.

Valerie Monson can be reached at

Copyright © 2005 The Maui News.

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