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The saga on Mauna Kea

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lmk's picture
The saga on Mauna Kea

My fellow Observers and Astronomers,

Some or many of you may have heard of the epic struggle unfolding now between the forces in support of the Thirty Meter Telescope Project (TMT), the State and County of Hawaii agencies and industry vs. The Native Hawaiians, the "kanaka maoli" and their supporters, who claim rights to this mountain based on many historical facts, including the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, and the State Constitutional Convention of 1978, guaranteeing these native peoples their lands and traditional hunting, gathering and religious rights.

The details of this struggle is beyond the scope of this short message, and I urge anyone interested to do some internet research to help understand the key issues.

As an avid Astronomer and Hawaiian citizen, this ongoing 10-year struggle has been disruptive - road closures, restricted access to conservation sites and the mountains. Clearly the TMT planners completely underestimated the degree of opposition they would face with this unprecedentedly huge project on top of a major conservation and native practices site. I feel TMT is being highly irresponsible, in forcing ahead on this project, given the degree of disruption this has caused to Hawaiians, and the costs to the taxpayers of the local operations.

Especially, given TMT's own site selection process, which identified about 4 alternate sites with nearly the same ability to provide for the science mission of TMT. In fact, they chose Observatorio Roque de los Muchachos (ORM) in Canary Islands as the first alternate. The key atmospheric factors - water vapor for IR, seeing, mean cloudiness, were overall almost identical between Mauna Kea and ORM. And ORM has offered a 75 years lease (far greater than MK) along with complete and friendly support!

Given these facts, it is beyond my comprehension, why TMT is so stubbornly continuing to try to build on Mauna Kea and cause such major problems here, with certain further lengthy delays and battles in courts, the public eye and on the ground. Could they please just go to the equally good site at ORM, and be completed much faster and cheaply? I wish for myself and other Hawaiians a return to normalcy.

I hope some of you who read this short message just might be intimately connected with the management at TMT, and could influence them to drop Mauna Kea in favor of ORM. Move on, and concentrate on effectively doing the science, please!

Mike Linnolt


pox's picture
Completely agree. When I was

Completely agree. When I was last up there, Aaron Price & me both basically said 'enough'. Leave Poliahu in peace!

stellakafka's picture
Updates (July 16,2019)

“This afternoon, the directors of the existing observatories on Maunakea made the joint decision to withdraw all personnel from their telescope facilities at the summit to guarantee the safety of their staff – the institutions’ top priority. Without guaranteed reliable access to the telescopes, the Maunakea Observatories will suspend all summit activities. We anticipate returning to normal operations as soon as the situation allows."


Let's see how this unfolds.

Best wishes - clear skies,


lmk's picture
Sadly, TMT is basically

Sadly, TMT is basically responsible for the closure of all astronomy on MK! They knew at the start, how this would be a major issue with the cultural significance of the mauna to Hawaiian "Kanaka maoli", but ignored many warning signs.

Over the past decade, new public access restrictions came to the mauna. I personally used to go up there freely and often for recreation, as well as for my VSO observations at various spots along the access road. Since TMT came and started agitating things, I found my access frequently restricted, by new rules, gates, security, police, etc. If TMT is allowed to continue construction, this will mean even more severe access restriction over the next 10+ years for "security of the workers and the site".

So, not even mentioning the selfish disregard for the native peoples customary rights for worship and sustenance (hunting on the mauna), I personally, as a State taxpayer feel harmed by this project.

I would like to specifically ask the members of the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan, one of the TMT partners, how would you react if a project of the scope of TMT was built upon Mt Fuji? This is equally the "most sacred" mountain in Japan, and I seriously doubt any such suggestion would ever be accepted by the Japanese people!

Clearly, the situation of TMT on Mauna Kea is unsustainable and a dead end, and I hope the TIO board quickly decides to move the project to ORM on Las Palmas.




Eric Dose
Eric Dose's picture
Another mass migration

Perhaps it's just morning pre-coffee pessimism, but a detached observer might call this just one more manifestation of the recent massive trend "Science is fleeing the US to Europe." Or indeed in a broader timeframe: "returning to Europe."

Bikeman's picture
Obs Site selection significance

Hmm, I dunno. Isn't it rather irrelevant where the obs site is? The funding and ownership of the TMT will still be mostly from (IIRC) the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, California, Canada, Japan, and China, and this will influence obs time allocation. And the Europeans (via ESO) have most of their big 'scopes in (South) America, including their future almost 40m giant telescope, namely Chile, where also the LSST will be (but under the control of the US government in the form of NSF) I don't think too much should be read into the site selection. Europe, America, Africa, Mars.... who cares, the important thing is who pays for the show and who controls the observation time, isn't it? I don*t see a reason to worry for the US (from the Mauna Kea affair).



Now gaining international attention

The interesting thing - for me at least - is the claim by various supporters of the telescope that the site is unique, which, as Heinz-Bernd points out above, it certainly is not.  Although as an atheist I personally attach no particular spiritual significance to the site, it seems to me that the project is just another example of hypocrisy on the part of the Abrahamic religion adherents who control the political structure in the US.  I wonder how the authorities would react were someone to propose building an observatory on a site holy to the Christians, or the Jews, or the Muslims.  I suspect it would be out of the question.  How can anybody who claims to be tolerant support the ongoing disrespect of the Hawaiians' native religion?

lmk's picture
Driving back from Kona this

Driving back from Kona this afternoon, passing by the junction of Saddle Road and Mauna Kea Access Road, the scene is surreal and unrecognizable. Like a tent city has sprung up, in an area which was once rural, peaceful pastoral ranchland. See attachments. I think many of our fellow VSO'rs have been here sometimes in the past too, and cannot recognize this!

I used to turn left at this point and drive up a couple of miles to my favorite observing spots, but now the entire mountain is off limits to everyone. A tragedy instigated by the TMT corporation :(



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WGR's picture
Its time to Obey the Law

Not to be argumenative, but its caused by lots of folks who expressed their point of view, challenged to the highest courts, and now are unwilling to obey the law.  They did not get their way, so they break the law.  In the end, this will cause Hawaii lots of astronomy business, if they care.  Enough is Enough.  TMT has gone thru the process.  If the process is wrong, then change the process.  That is what America was founded on.  I am sorry if I offended anyone, but its time to get to the things that America was founded on.  There are avenues to change.


pox's picture
Is one of the things "America

Is one of the things "America was founded on" the illegal seizure of another nation? I refer of course to the illegal and apparently also unconstitutional annexing of Hawai'i in 1893, a literal example of gunboat diplomacy but without the diplomacy - apologised for (so easy to do: you just say 'sorry'. Honestly, a fool could do it) - but not actually rescinded. Time to obey the law then.

American Foundation

Your post is right on point, Pox!  Michael Sandel's famous Justice course at Harvard covered the work of John Locke, who was basically hired to provide justification for the seizure by the (then British) American colonists of native lands.  His argument hinged on the fact that the natives did not fence their land in, and in failing to so demark their property boundaries, could lay no legal claim to it.  Locke's argument underpins the basic US law on property rights, and has been used consistently for over two centuries to systematically persecute the native populations.

This process continues in the US even in the present times, with oil companies running their pipelines across land that is supposedly under "Indian" jurisdiction.  What we are seeing in Hawaii is part of that process.  Based on two centuries' history, the native populations have little option but to resist illegally or capitulate. The Hawaiians should have no reason to expect a fair hearing in any US court.

lmk's picture
Dear Gary, We work together

Dear Gary, We work together on a project, so I don't want to get argumantative with you, but there is a whole lot more to this issue than just a court decision. Generally, people on the mainland are usually out of touch with the entirety of what goes on in Hawaii, esp. in these matters related to sovereignty and indigenous rights. Many here do not accept that Hawaii is even legally part of the US! (Basically that the annexation by the Newlands Resolution was incorrect process, it must be done by a formal treaty of annexation, which never passed). The dissenting opinion of the court, justice Wilson, pointed out that a legal decision made solely on legal technicalities, can be very dangerous, since the basic finding in this case, is that: Once desecration of a cultural site begins, its then "ok" to continue further desecration! I believe that this decision will be overturned on those grounds. A very dangerous legal precedent which can undermine all environmental protection laws.

Meanwhile, the Kia'i have effectively took full control of the MK Access Road, set up a full-service "town" to support the thousands of people living at the entrance 24/7. It is no longer possible for the State government to forcibly stop a movement of this magnitude in a humane fashion!

I personally feel sorry for what happened to TMT, but it was really all their poor planning and misunderstanding of the degree of opposition a project of this size would face against the native peoples.

In practice, their only option left now is to immediately go to ORM on La Palma.


DFR's picture
Thanks for the updates

Thanks for the updates Mike. Its great to hear that everyone is staying safe.


Comments On The Future of Big Telescopes in the United States

I personally do not have a "pony in this race". Frankly, I don't care if the TMT is built on Mauna Kea or not. If the site survey for another site (e.g., the Canary Islands) is otherwise just as favorable as Mauna Kea, and the alternate's local government and people are more highly supportive than in Hawaii, my sense of logic and common sense is for TMT to cut its losses and go build TMT at the alternate site. Right or wrong, environmental activists and native activist groups have pretty much shutdown the construction of new large telescopes in the United States. Their protests and law suits result in many years and large sums of money being spent to fight these in court before a spade of dirt is turned to begin construction (which is what they want at the least, lacking a full victory). Will the court rulings in Hawaii prevail to permit construction? I'm not convinced the rulings will given my Hawaii recollections about how things really work there.  About 15 or so years ago a well-connected astronomer I knew told me he doubted that any more big telescopes would ever be built in the U.S.. and sponsors of such telescopes should not waste their time on U.S. sites, but instead look elsewhere. Back to Hawaii: if the TMT protesters win and TMT goes elsewhere, what might this mean for the existing instruments on Mauna Kea? Might these at some  point be forced to close down? Hopefully not. But don't count it out - stranger things have happened!  Last, but not least, let's not allow this thread somehow imply the AAVSO is taking a stand in this issue. I doubt we, the AAVSO, have any pony in this race either.

lmk's picture
Update Mon July 22

The weather has deteriorated, but the protectors remain steadfast in their occupation and shutdown of the MK access road. I know how it can get very cold and wet at 7000ft even in mid-summer up there. I stayed in the car! While the TMT management sits in their climate controlled offices and bark out their commands to the Hawaiian authorities, these poor people suffer. Some really cold hearts in the world, we know that :(



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pox's picture
A spot of Saddle Road weather

A spot of Saddle Road weather I see!

PYG's picture

There is an interesting piece on this subject on the BBC website...

Hope you guys can access it.


lmk's picture
Update Friday, July 26

Basically, the governor of Hawaii has "passed the buck" to Hawaii County/Island Mayor Harry Kim, to deal with the standoff between the protesters and the TMT people.

The protesters at Puu Huluhulu at the base of the MK access road, have a "permanent" settlement with between 1000-2000 people residing, and blocking access up the mountain. Police presence has been scaled down to just a minimal number of officers to prevent anyone going up the "closed" mountain.

One Hawaiian native practicioner won his right in court to go up to the summit to exercise his Constitutional rights of customs and prayers.

All telescope operations have been suspended. Big loss to ongoing Astonomical research projects!

Both sides seem to be digging in with "non-negotiable" positions. Protectors will not allow TMT construction equipment to go up. TMT says they are determined to build it there. Nice.

Where will this go? It may come down to which side endures, has the most patience to wait weeks, months, years until one side "blinks" and throws in the towel, as they say!

Mayor Kim is well known as a "do nothing" politician, who never makes any significant decisions, nor favors any sides. He is very old, and clearly wants to avoid getting a coronary or stroke over this.

Seems this is headed for a long, long, long standoff. Existing astronomical research using the telescopes up there now - Keck, Subaru, Gemini, CFHT, etc. is going to be hurt the most by a protracted shutdown of MK :(


lmk's picture
A quick update on Mauna Kea

A quick update on Mauna Kea situation. Basically, the Kiai "protectors", also called "protesters" have established a semi-permanent camp at the base of the access road. Access up the mauna is extremely limited, to just a few "emergency" trips by existing observatory workers, to keep the equipment on the telescopes from suffering serious damages associated with lack of regular maintenance.

All existing astronomy research and observing activities on Mauna Kea are shutdown, and appear to remain so for the forseeable future. There has never been such a long shutdown of the observatories in history!

Based on all the information I can gather, the State and County authorities have no intention of using force to remove the Kiai and re-open the access road. This would be "political suicide" here, any harm done to the local native Hawaiian people with a forceful interdiction.

Also, it is very clear these native people have established a "permanent" occupation on the Hawaiian Homelands property, over which the access road traverses. The lower half of the access road is completely legally Homelands private property, not State or County ownership!  Kiai have made very clear that they will stay there indefinitely, blocking that road, and there will be no negotiation regarding allowing the halted construction of the TMT.

There is only one logical solution to this standoff, and it is for TMT to move to its first alternate site on ORM in Canary Islands. As time goes by, and the existing observatories remain "mothballed", pressure will just continue to grow on TMT, both from the financial and project costs delays, and from the other observatories and scientists demanding that they move to allow normal observing to resume.

Hopefully, the TMT management will quit their stubbornness, fully comprehend the reality and necessity to "move on", and make the decision to relocate ASAP.


From an article on the

From an article on the Physics Today website:

"A backup site on La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, was selected in 2016. But Mauna Kea is higher and drier; it is the best site in the Northern Hemisphere. Most of the planned science could still be done from La Palma, but because of the thicker atmosphere and higher humidity, observations would take longer, says Christophe Dumas, TMT observatory scientist and head of operations. And the fraction of time that is compatible with observing in the mid-IR is more than 50% on Mauna Kea and only about 20% on La Palma. “We would have to monitor the atmospheric quality and implement adaptive scheduling,” he says. Some science would not be possible from La Palma, Dumas adds, because of greater broadening of spectral lines by the thicker atmosphere."

Seems the astronomers are being "stubborn" for a reason.


Stubborn is a nice word for it

... and I say that because the TMT program abrogates promises made to the people who hold the site holy at the time the first telescopes were built there.  At that time, an area was carved out for the observatories, with the remainder of the site set aside.  The location of the TMT is outside the boundaries of the allowed region, and so naturally the people, who negotiated with the astronomical community in good faith, feel betrayed.  As a compromise, the politicians have decided to decommission some of the telescopes within the allocated area, but only after the TMT is completed.  Had they wished to abide by their original agreement, the TMT would have been located within the agreed-to area.  By all appearances, the setting aside of some land for the use of the native religious community has devolved into a shell game, and the original agreement is out the window.  In the eyes of the native religion adherents, what the State and TMT Corp are doing is no different from, say, relocating the Wailing Wall, Al-Aqsa Mosque, and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Disney World. (As a Jew, Muslim, or Christian, how would you feel about that?)

Personally, I would love to see the TMT built at a location where it can perform best, but only if it can be done in a moral and ethical manner.  I see nothing in the behavior of the Hawaiian political leadership or in that of the TMT Corporation that can be characterized as either.

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