Updated at 2:30 p.m. with Board decision.
HONOLULU—This morning, the University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents gave approval for the world’s largest telescope to be built on Mauna Kea, against the pleas of Native Hawaiian activists and environmentalists.
Last week, India’s Minister of Science and Technology Prithviraj Chavan announced that India will join Mauna Kea’s Thirty Meter Telescope Project (TMT) as an observer.
The announcement comes as a feather in the cap for the team behind the TMT, who intend to build a telescope larger than all telescopes currently atop Mauna Kea combined. Last year, team TMT acquired the participation of China as an observer along with funding commitments from Japan and Canada—which puts them ahead in the money race with Carnegie Observatory’s $700 million Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).
The University of Hawaii currently rents public land on Mauna Kea’s conservation district for one dollar a year.
“Mauna Kea is our public land,” states KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance in its call to action. “While we continue to work towards its protection as a conservation district and halt unecessary destruction of the sacred landscape, we also know that State law requires fair market rent be collected for all use of our public trust land. The State has failed its duty by giving public lands away for free to some of the wealthiest nations, companies and institutions on the planet.”
KAHEA estimates that had the State been collecting rent for the land’s actual price, there would be over $500 million due.
Astronomy is a lucrative business for corporations, research institutions, and universities. Since 1979, the UH Institute for Astronomy (UHIFA) has entered into several sub-lease agreements with international universities and corporations.
Last year, Yale University paid CalTech as much as $80,000 a night to use their facilities on Mauna Kea. The UHIFA also claims to own $14 million dollars worth of patent contracts.
Yet, in lieu of the market-based rent required by law for the use of public trust lands, outside universities and private corporations from Canada, France, the UK, Japan, and elsewhere were charged $1 or less to use the land.
While the observatories generate an as-yet-unknown level of revenue from lucrative viewing contracts, UH continues to seek public tax money from the Legislature. This year the UH system requested $253 million from the Legislature, including $2.1 million for activities related to Mauna Kea.
“Mauna Kea’s public lands are being exploited by foreign nations, corporations, and the University of Hawaii, who are all seeking to profit from telescope construction on the summit at the expense of its unique natural habitat, pure drinking water, and sacred cultural resources,” states KAHEA.
For decades, activists have said that the university has been damaging the mountain’s environment. They complained that the university’s own development plan had called for no more than 13 scopes on the mountain—yet that number had already been exceeded and the university was still considering applications for even more and bigger facilities.
Native Hawaiians argued that the telescopes were desecrating their sacred mountain, damaging ancient cultural sites, and interfering with their religious and cultural practices. Environmentalists noted that telescope construction had destroyed much of the native habitat for the wekiu bug, an endangered insect that lives only in the cindery upper regions of Mauna Kea.