Trouble in the House of the Sun
A proposed solar telescope on Haleakala has pitted scientists against Native Hawaiian advocates and exposed a deep cultural divide. As a decision looms, someone's going to get burned...
June 11, 2009
It's been more than 200 years since Haleakala last erupted. Today, its majestic slopes stand as a silent monument to the bursts of molten fire that gave shape to the Valley Isle. Yet while the volcano lies dormant, the controversy swirling around it is anything but.
A towering example of Maui's singular natural beauty, a magnet for tourists and a prime location for scientific study, Haleakala, the "house of the sun," is also an important part of Native Hawaiian culture, a focal point of worship and reverence. Because of those competing interests, tension is always roiling just beneath the surface.
For the past several years that tension has been exacerbated by a large solar telescope that the National Science Foundation (NSF) wants to build near the volcano's summit. As a decision on the telescope nears, the forces for and against the project are making their final arguments. It's a battle that involves advocates from the environmental, scientific, business and Native Hawaiian communities. And as with all such fights, it's more complicated than it appears.
The proposed 143-foot-tall Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST), which would measure solar magnetic fields with cutting-edge precision, has been in the works for the better part of a decade. It has hit numerous stumbling blocks, and met with opposition from various organizations and agencies including, at one point, the Haleakala National Park Service. With the release of a new draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the project is entering what looks to be the home stretch. Written public comments are being accepted through June 22, and a decision by NSF Director Arden Bement is expected by year's end.
So far, NSF officials say they've spent about $23 million on design and planning. But, they insist, that doesn't mean the telescope is a foregone conclusion.
"If constructed, this would be the world's flagship [solar observation] facility," said program manager Craig Foltz at a recent meeting at the Cameron Center, one of the final opportunities for citizens to speak publicly on the matter. However, Foltz quickly added, nothing has been decided yet.
Flotz also emphasized that NSF, which is a taxpayer-funded agency, only approves projects after extensive deliberation. "We don't sit around and say, 'Hey, wouldn't it be great for us to build this big telescope and put it on top of Haleakala?' That's not the way it works," he said. "We are a reactive agency that responds to the members of the scientific community."
The assurances of Foltz and the handful of other government representatives in attendance did little to assuage the anger or allay the concerns of the anti-ATST contingency. Of the 14 people who spoke or had statements read at the Cameron Center meeting, eight expressed opposition to the telescope and five voiced support. Of those who opposed the project, all but one did so based largely on cultural concerns. Although, as one speaker put it, those concerns are also environmental because the land, the 'aina, is held as sacred.
One refrain that was voiced repeatedly at the meeting, and that has been part of this debate from the beginning, is the idea, supported by evidence, that ancient Hawaiians were early astronomers who used the stars for navigation and to understand the world around them. A woman who said she was speaking "for those who have passed" didn't dispute that notion, but said her ancestors "knew when to stop looking up at the sky that was falling and do something about it."
"I'm not against science. Like my kupuna I believe that science is a valuable and important part of our existence," said Native Hawaiian advocate Foster Ampong, who, like several others, used up his three minutes of allotted time and waited for a second turn to speak. However, Ampong added, the ATST project is "not sustainable."
Stan Truitt, who identified himself as an amateur astronomer, said he supports the project's "construction, operation—and eventual removal." Truitt said one day, the ATST's technology will be obsolete and that we'll have learned what we can from it. "[The telescope should] eventually go away, just as all things that man makes eventually go away, including the pyramids," he said.
|A designer's rendering of the ATST and surrounding support structures.|
photo: L. Phelps.
For now, Truitt said, the ATST would be a significant boon to the island. "This is a good thing for mankind and a good thing for Maui," he said. "I so often hear colleagues and neighbors talking about their students, the best and brightest students, that [get] an education elsewhere and then cannot come back to Maui to [share] their knowledge."
Also on hand were representatives from the construction and hotel industries, who touted the economic benefits of the project. "This won't put everyone back to work, but it'll help," said Ivan Lay of the Maui Carpenters Union.
Ampong compared those arguments to "what the plantations have told the people for the past hundred years." Clare Apana added that the presence of the union and hotel workers showed that the project "can't stand on its own merit."
Many speakers used the ATST as a jumping off point to address larger, more deep-seated grievances. Topics raised included ceded Native Hawaiian lands, the viability of tourism and the U.S. Constitution. At one point, someone seated in the back row muttered, "What does any of this have to do with a telescope?"
A 15-year-old student from Kamehameha Schools who said he was "speaking on behalf of future generations" questioned whether the telescope would have any lasting benefit for Hawaiians. "We can look at the sun all we want," he said, "but what happens when the earth we stand on crumbles away?"
Not everyone who spoke against the project focused solely on cultural concerns. Richard Lucas of Haiku lambasted the "lack of transparency" in the draft EIS, which he said omits information about alternative sites such as Big Bear Lake in California. He said the money already spent on development, as well as the $146 million in federal stimulus funds earmarked for the project, is putting pressure on officials to move it forward.
Lucas said Haleakala is "in the process of healing itself" and compared building the ATST on the mountain's slopes to "tearing off a scab."
What's interesting about this debate is that both sides come in with lofty ideals. For Native Hawaiians and those sympathetic to their cause, it's about honoring tradition, upholding a sacred kuleana and preserving what's left of an island that has endured dramatic, perhaps irreversible, change. For those who support the telescope, it's about studying the sun—that massive, burning ball of gas at the center of our solar system—and unlocking mysteries related to global communications, weather patterns and the future of life on Earth.
What this clash of deeply held values means is that compromise may not be possible. If Haleakala is your church, no further construction, no matter how unobtrusive or conscientious, is acceptable. (As several speakers put it "you can't mitigate spirituality.") At the same time, though NSF officials and the scientific community have made conciliatory overtures, in the end they chose this site with full awareness of its importance to Native Hawaiians.
Of course, whether or not the ATST is constructed, this fight won't end; there will be other battlegrounds, other projects. The tug-of-war between preservation and progress will go on. And the fragile, uncertain future of Maui—and all of Hawaii—will hang, as ever, in the balance. MTW
ATST AT A GLANCE
The Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) is designed to monitor solar activity and magnetic fields. If approved, construction would begin in 2010, with initial telescope operations commencing in 2015. Here's an overview of the project:
Telescope pier – 69 ft. 4 in. in diameter, 67 ft. high with 20 in. thick concrete walls
Enclosure – Four levels, 94 ft. 4 in. in diameter, 142 ft. 10 in. in height at the top of the dome
Support & operations building – 13,000 square feet, four levels, 79 ft. 3 in. in height
Utility building – 2,560 square feet, one level, 18 ft. in height
Source: ATST fact sheet
COMMENTS on the draft Environmental Impact Statement are being accepted through June 22...
For more information, visit http://atst.nso.edu (copies of the draft EIS are also available at public libraries islandwide).
Program manager and National Science Foundation representative Craig Foltz can be reached at (703) 292-4909 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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