…Kealoha Pisciotta, one of a half dozen plaintiffs suing to stop the project, finds herself in the unusual position of having friends on both sides of the debate. She was a telescope systems specialist technician on the James Clark Maxwell radio telescope for 12 years. Meanwhile, she maintained a family shrine near the summit and led a cultural heritage group.
… Two lawsuits are in motion over the California Institute of Technology and the University of California’s proposal to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT); in October activists shut down the project’s groundbreaking in a protest that made headlines worldwide. So far, courts have ruled in favor of the telescope and construction has recently begun. Activists have appealed and say they will continue to protest.
… If activists were to succeed in stopping TMT, it wouldn’t be the first time: In 2002 a federal court blocked a NASA plan to build a half dozen 1.8-meter telescopes on the mountain because it failed to do a comprehensive environmental assessment; NASA eventually abandoned the project.
… The project still faces considerable opposition. In October the number of people who showed up to protest at the telescope’s groundbreaking ceremony—protesters estimate around 500—took telescope supporters by surprise, and suggests there may be resilience to the opposition. That momentum may derive in part from a renewed appreciation of Hawaiian heritage as part of a “new Hawaiian renaissance,” as protester Joshua Lanakila Mangauil put it. He says efforts to protect Mauna Kea are one vein of that renaissance. “Hawaiians are learning the laws that were used against us,” he says. “We’re learning the legal game. We’re using it to reclaim our people and our islands and our culture.”
After about 50 protesters lay across the road and later stormed the ceremony the groundbreaking was aborted. Its master of ceremonies concluded, “We do hope we’ll be able to find a common ground and proceed with this in the future.”
But TMT’s Dawson says they later decided not to reschedule the event. “We will have no more ceremonial events,” she says. “We will just move forward.”
… In the late 1980s astronomers at the Mount Graham National Observatory in Arizona faced opposition to a new telescope from squirrel-protecting environmentalists and from the San Carlos Apaches, who perform religious ceremonies on the mountain. Astronomers eventually won, but the delays forced them to downsize their project. In the 2000s the Kitt Peak Observatory, built on the tribal reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation, became the site of another clash. In 2005 the tribe successfully put a stop to a new $13-million telescope complex at the observatory.
When these conflicts arose, says Leandra Swanner, a science sociologist and historian at Arizona State University in Tempe, astronomers “felt blindsided.” They were accustomed to considering themselves the underdogs, continually embattled for funding and support. The astronomy community initially dismissed indigenous claims as spurious, antiquated and antiscience, a perspective that is still prevalent. In a column in The New York Times last October science writer George Johnson likened Hawaiian’s opposition to the telescope to the Catholic Church’s oppression of Galileo, and suggested that the indigenous protesters were pawns of environmentalists who “have learned that a few traditionally dressed natives calling for the return of sacred lands can draw more attention than arguments over endangered species and fragile ecosystems.”