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Teaching telescope project to proceed at Halepohaku

Despite receiving predominantly negative feedback from community members, the Office of Maunakea Management will seek to proceed with constructing a telescope facility at Halepohaku.

Last year, OMKM announced plans to construct a small facility to house the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s teaching telescope at Halepohaku, the mid-level facility on Maunakea. OMKM solicited public feedback about the plan in October and discussed that feedback at a meeting earlier this month.

The project in question would construct an 18-foot-diameter dome and platform for UH-Hilo’s never-used 28-inch teaching telescope at Halepohaku to allow astronomy students hands-on observational experience.

The plan would coincide with the decommissioning of the University’s Hoku Kea observatory on Maunakea’s summit, which previously housed another teaching telescope that was found to be critically faulty and unusable in 2010.

Jared Chang, a planner for Honolulu consulting firm SSFM International — which conducted the university’s public outreach process — discussed the results with the board last Tuesday.

He revealed that during the 30-day “virtual open house” when the public was invited to learn about the telescope project and submit feedback, 355 comments were submitted by community members, 212 of which were in opposition to the plan, with 139 in support and the remaining four neutral.

Chang said the majority of opposition was about the proposed location, with some comments acknowledging the value of the university’s teaching telescope, but adding that the location is not acceptable.

“Most who opposed the project basically said the same thing: They would like no more development anywhere on Maunakea,” Chang said. “About 80% (of the comments in opposition) not only oppose the new educational telescope facility at Halepohaku, but also mentioned the desire not to have any new structures or development on Maunakea.”

Other common sentiments among the negative comments included feelings of distrust toward UH, concerns for increased environmental impacts on the mountain, and a perception that UH has mismanaged the leased lands on the mountain. Three of the most commonly used words in the negative comments were “sacred,” “land” and “stop,” according to data Chang presented.

However, Chang noted that the bulk of comments about the project were largely positive during most of the public comment period.

By the last week of the comment period, there were about 50 comments in support of the project and 25 in opposition. But two days before the comment period ended, an Instagram post about the project by @protectmaunakea — an account with more than 133,000 followers that shares posts opposing development on Maunakea — went viral, with the number of total comments tripling over the next two days, the majority of which were negative.

Despite the broadly negative feedback, the OMKM board expressed intentions to continue with the project.

“The (UH Board of Regents) had wanted us to do more community outreach and consultation before we moved ahead with the plans,” said UH-Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin. “We feel that we have now done that, and so we will continue down the road of trying to do this, which will include applying for the (environmental assessment).”

Irwin added that the last spike of negative comments, spurred as it was by a viral social media post, may not have been submitted by people on the Big Island or even in the state, although Chang said about 140 of all comments, positive and negative, came from Big Island IP addresses, and about 250 came from within the state.

However, Irwin and other board members agreed that the board would take to heart the comments, particularly in light of an independent assessment of UH’s implementation of its Maunakea Comprehensive Management Plan earlier this month.

That assessment, which evaluated the university’s success in carrying out the goals of its 2009 management plan, found that the general sentiment among respondents is that the university has failed to adequately communicate or listen to the community when making Maunakea-related decisions.

The board discussed the assessment only briefly last week, but members Diana Van De Car and Julie Leialoha supported forming a subcommittee to determine how UH can improve its community relations in the future. Van De Car also urged the board to continue to discuss the matter at a future meeting, a date for which has not yet been set.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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