Stargazing and Conflict on Mauna Kea

Nov 30, 2018 | General Information

The Mauna Kea Access Road, which leads to Mauna Kea’s summit on the Island of Hawaii, was closed indefinitely by the state on July 15, 2019. The purpose of the closure was so equipment could be moved into place for the start of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) construction project. However, news that the TMT construction would begin sparked immediate protests by many kamaaina (longtime residents) and Native Hawaiians who consider the mountain to be sacred. The standoff halted construction and the road to the summit remains closed.

But the conflict had other value for the longer term. Recently Gov. David Ige approved rules for the management of Mauna Kea that were long overdue. These rules govern all aspects of the mountain — not just telescopes — but also commercial and visitor access as well as protection of natural and cultural resources. After a public hearing, these rules were approved last November by the University of Hawaii Board of Regents. Issues related to the TMT on Mauna Kea had become a symbol and flash-point of Native Hawaiian self-determination. The process resulted in recognition by all parties involved in management of Mauna Kea’s future of the need for greater transparency and stakeholder involvement.

Mauna Kea has been home to 13 telescopes operated by astronomers from 11 countries. The TMT is intended to exponentially increase collection of data deep in the universe. The telescope would provide nine times the collecting area of the current largest visible-light telescope in the world, with the potential to see farther into the universe than ever before. But Mauna Kea is the most sacred mountain in Hawaii. In Hawaiian tradition, its peaks were considered kapu (forbidden) to all except for the highest chiefs. Its name translates to “Wakea’s Mountain,” the Sky Father. Mauna Kea is integral to the creation story of Native Hawaiians. Papa, the Earth Mother, and Wakea, the Sky Father, created the Islands.

For the foreseeable future, as in the past, tours from Kona to the summit will rely for stargazing on telescopes brought up by van. Mauna Kea’s slopes offer some of the best stargazing on Hawaii and see some of the clearest, darkest skies in the world. Mauna Loa was originally chosen as the site for Hawaii’s observatories. But its slightly lower elevation and location made it more prone to cloud cover. Still, on a clear night, from the slopes of Mauna Loa visitors can indulge in some wonderful stargazing. The same is true from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where the end of volcanic activity has meant that air quality for stargazing is at its cleanest in years. Campgrounds like Kulanaokuaiki and Nāmakanipaio probably are the best places for stargazing in the park.