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TMT opponents oppose small teaching telescope at Halepohaku

The public comment period for the proposed relocation of the University of Hawaii’s teaching telescope to a site on Maunakea will end Monday.

In September, UH began hosting a “virtual open house” of a proposed new site for the university’s still-unused teaching telescope at Halepohaku, the mid-level facility 9,200 feet up Maunakea. Along with a website displaying statistics about the telescope and its proposed facility, the open house also invited members of the public to submit their thoughts on the project in order to guide the university’s final decision on the project.

Although the final results of the public comment period will not be revealed until after testimony closes, some leaders of the Thirty Meter Telescope opposition movement have already stated their disapproval of the proposed new site.

“It seems very irresponsible, really,” said Andre Perez, who was one of the leaders at the anti-TMT protest on the Maunakea Access Road last year. “The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is already suing the university for mismanagement (of the Maunakea Science Reserve), and they want to site a new telescope?”

“It’s like a band-aid,” said fellow leader Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, who is also a retired UH professor. “It’s being pushed by this special interest group … which is the same group that’s pushing against the Board of Regents’ decommissioning plan. It just shows that (the university) is giving into pressures from its own people.”

Both Perez and Wong-Wilson added that Halepohaku and the upper slopes of Maunakea are ecologically sensitive areas, and installing a telescope and thereby attracting more traffic to the mountain will threaten local ecosystems.

The two also agreed that it seems perverse that UH is entertaining the possibility of placing another telescope on Maunakea even as the decommissioning process of three observatories on Maunakea summit — required as part of the terms for the construction of TMT — has been delayed.

One of the three observatories scheduled for decommissioning is the university’s Hoku Kea observatory, which was to house the university’s teaching telescope. However, for a variety of reasons, that telescope has never been used.

The telescope installed at Hoku Kea in 2010 was found to be faulty, and was determined in 2013 to be not worth the high costs of repairs. The university’s decision to replace the teaching telescope with a smaller and more modern one came at about the same time as the decision to decommission the Hoku Kea site entirely, meaning that the new telescope has never been mounted at the summit, and has never been used to observe the sky.

Wong-Wilson said that, because UH’s astronomy program is still active despite not having a working teaching telescope, she believes installing the telescope will not have a substantial impact on astronomy education on the island.

UH-Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin told the Tribune-Herald earlier this month that she expects a certain amount of opposition to the Halepohaku site, but added that she believes that others — even some who are opposed to the TMT project — will be satisfied.

“Some of the (opponents) believe there should be nothing added anywhere on the mauna, but we also know that many of the opponents are very happy that we’re going to be decommissioning the site on the summit,” Irwin said. “And because where we would like to put the new teaching telescope is on ground that’s already been disturbed … the impact will be minimal and yet it will provide the opportunity for the community.”

Irwin also pointed out that the small size of the teaching telescope — it’s about 8 feet tall, with a 28-inch aperture — should allay fears about the scope of the facility.

After Monday, the public comments will be forwarded to the Board of Regents, which will then decide how to proceed with the project. Construction is estimated to begin in 2023.

However, the project may also be subject to determinations by a Maunakea Planning Task Group, which the Board of Regents appointed earlier this month with the task to investigate proposed changes to the management plans for UH-managed lands on Maunakea.

That task force, made up of five regents, was approved on Oct. 9 and has not made any public presentation yet.

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

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