Survey on planned solar telescope up for comment

The Maui News
Monday, March 06, 2006

By EDWIN TANJI, City Editor

HALEAKALA – If he has a choice, Native Hawaiian cultural specialist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. says he would prefer that all of the observatories and facilities on the Haleakala summit be removed.

But he doesn't have that choice, and he can only request that developments being planned for the summit respect the host culture.

"I feel we are going through the right processes to bring forth all of the nuances of Native Hawaiian rights, that people fully understand if they are going to build, they have to give recognition to the Native Hawaiian culture," he said.

"Permission has been asked."

Maxwell, a Pukalani resident, was the primary investigator in a cultural evaluation prepared for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, a $161 million observatory planned for the summit.

"E Mala Mau Ka La'a, Preserve the Sacredness" has been released by the ATST Project for public review and comment with a March 20 deadline set for the public to submit comments or questions. The document is available at all public libraries on Maui or online at

The study prepared with associate researcher Adrian Kamalii notes that the evaluation is required because of the potential impact of the planned observatory on Native Hawaiian cultural values. The agency planning the development, the National Solar Observatory, is required to consider options for mitigating the impacts including effects on Native Hawaiian cultural and traditional practices.

The National Solar Observatory is preparing an environmental impact statement on the observatory, which is being considered for two possible sites in the vicinity of the Mees Solar Observatory, operated by the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy on the summit.

When completed, the ATST will be the largest solar telescope in the world. It will be the leading facility for studying the physics of the sun with an aim of better understanding how the sun affects life on Earth, according to the National Solar Observatory.

Haleakala was selected as the preferred site from among six candidates around the world, with officials involved in the selection saying the atmosphere above Haleakala is more dust free than any of the other sites, is more frequently clear, has low humidity and is less affected by high altitude aircraft contrails.

"The survey data indicated a number of advantages that put Hawaii at the top of the list for final consideration for this particular project," said Thomas Rimmele, ATST project scientist with the National Solar Observatory in a December 2004 announcement of the selection of Haleakala.

For Native Hawaiians, however, the choice means further development and activity on an area of the island that is considered "wao akua" or the realm of the gods, Maxwell said.

A number of Native Hawaiians interviewed for the cultural evaluation opposed development on the summit.

"It is being used because it is a high place, and you can get a clear view," said Hokulani Holt-Padilla, a kumu hula and cultural program director with the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

"When you put this foreign material on this mountain, that makes it more important than the mountain itself. That is unacceptable behavior and in Hawaiian culture, that is maha'oi (rude)," she said. The fact that there are observatories already on the summit "does not take away from the spirituality of it but does prevent full spiritual use of it. The mountain is greater than all of us," she said.

Kamalii said work on Haleakala must include a sense of place "that this telescope is being built on Hawaiian soil and not anywhere else in the USA."

"Whoever constructs facilities in places like Haleakala should understand that we should reserve the right to say what is pono (righteous), and what is not," he said.

Maxwell said he agreed to participate in the evaluation because he felt the facility will be built no matter what Maui residents or Native Hawaiians say.

"The bottom line is if Congress puts this money together, it's going to happen. But if that happens, we want to see some of the advantages someday not only to the haole people but for our own residents," he said. "No more should we as Native Hawaiian people be left out of anything that makes use of our own land."

He noted that he also participated in the production of a video on the cultural significance of Haleakala to Native Hawaiians in which Nainoa Thompson, the Native Hawaiian navigator with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, spoke of a correlation between astronomy and Native Hawaiian knowledge of the stars.

"The Native Hawaiian was reading the skies, navigating across the Pacific at a time when Western man was not aware that the world was round. Now it's a matter of them catching up," Maxwell said. "We had the pure knowledge from the cosmos that we deal directly with. They have to use artificial means, but our ancestors used everything that was natural to them."

He said funding for the telescope should also include support for schools on Maui, including the Kamehameha Schools Maui Campus, to train students who wish to become astronomers or technicians working at the observatories.

"If they're going to spend $161 million, some of it should be to educate our native people for these studies," he said.

The ATST would likely be one of the last of an array of scientific facilities on the summit, since there would be only one possible site left for an observatory after ATST is built, according to Maxwell's evaluation.

In addition to the Mees observatory built in 1964, Haleakala is now used by the Maui Space Surveillance System, which includes three telescopes; the University of Tokyo MAGNUM 2-meter telescope, the Pan-STARRS 1.8-meter telescope involved in locating and tracking asteroids, and the Faulkes Telescope, a 2-meter telescope that is linked to schools in Hawaii and Great Britain.

Possibly the most controversial of the facilities is the Advanced Electro-Optical System, a Maui Space Surveillance observatory housing a 3.6-meter telescope used by the Air Force for tracking near-space objects and observing planets in the solar system. The AEOS observatory utilized a reflective surface, rather than the traditional white coating, to minimize the effects of heating by the sun. But the size and the sunlight reflecting off the surface has turned the observatory into the most visible intrusion on views from and of the Haleakala summit.

Maxwell noted that he was consulted on the AEOS and cautioned against removing cinders from the site when construction began.

"The AEOS people took 150 tons of rock after they said they wouldn't touch anything," he said. "I have to say I had some confidence when they built AEOS, and they snookered me, they removed the most sacred rocks from the top of the mountain.

"Time will tell, but the fact is I fought hard and long against the observatories but they happened anyway."

Edwin Tanji can be reached at

Copyright © 2005 The Maui News.

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