PUKALANI - The federal government's Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, a highly controversial project to study the sun that's $23 million in planning and 10 years in the making - so far - will receive the money it needs to be built atop Haleakala.
After the completion of a long-awaited environmental impact statement this summer, National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement officially selected Haleakala last week as the site of the planned 143-foot-tall telescope and funded the $300 million project, according to a decision made public in Tuesday's Federal Register.
A slew of contractors will build the telescope over the next seven years on a half acre within the University of Hawaii's Science City, a cluster of observatories near the summit, said UH Institute of Astronomy Assistant Director Mike Maberry on Wednesday.
However, Maberry said the state Board of Land and Natural Resources still needs to vote on the project in the coming months before it can move forward. Nevertheless, he said he expects construction most likely to begin in the fall of 2010.
"This will allow for the greatest advancement in our understanding of the star that allows life to exist on our planet," Maberry said.
However, the project's opponents, including Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., said the telescope is unnecessary, ugly and extremely disrespectful to the Hawaiian culture. Haleakala is considered a sacred place, in part, because monarchs were buried nearby.
"Now the battle starts," said Maxwell, a 72-year-old with failing health who learned about the decision Wednesday via e-mail from the National Park Service. "It's not over. Native Hawaiians should gather with me, and we will all lay our bodies down in front of the tractors. This will be my last stand.
"There's enough junk up there already to completely annihilate the spirituality of Haleakala," he said.
UH manages the 18-acre Science City, which is home to about a dozen observatories and numerous large and small telescopes, some of which are owned by the U.S. Air Force and remain top secret. The proposed project would be the world's largest optical solar telescope, with a 13-foot-diameter main mirror that would help provide the sharpest views ever of the sun.
Maberry also noted that the project went through an extensive four-year review by environmental, archaeological, historical and endangered species experts as well as discussion at numerous public hearings.
The funding also includes
$2 million a year for 10 years for Maui Community College for a science and astronomy education program in the form of internships and work force training.
Maxwell accused MCC Chancellor Clyde Sakamoto of selling out. Maxwell said that the educational dollars don't include money for Hawaiian culture or history classes.
Sakamoto said that once the opportunities and program become more fleshed out, he expects a great deal of excitement and participation by Native Hawaiian students.
"We're very excited for Native Hawaiians to become engaged in activities in a marriage between nature and science and create leadership opportunities for our students in this field," Sakamoto said, noting the boost it will also bring to Maui's struggling construction industry. "We hope to enjoy broad support in the community. Our view is that solar research really affects life on Earth from food production and global warming to disruptions in telecommunications."
Maberry said the project, in addition to at least $80 million in local construction work, the telescope will produce at least 35 full-time jobs for mostly locals and $18 million annually for the Maui economy.
The project qualifies for $30 million in federal stimulus funding, he said, adding that the timely approval of the project is crucial to receiving the money. And, over the next 50 years, more dollars will be spent on Maui for building supplies and equipment and conferences and hotel stays by visiting scientists.
More money will be spent on environmental impact mitigation efforts, such as widening a section of Haleakala Highway for the heavy equipment to reach the construction site and then narrow the roadway once the project is complete.
"I would have expected it," said Kiope Raymond, a MCC instructor and leader of a group against the Haleakala solar telescope project, called Kilakila O Haleakala. "The solar science community feels that they really need this project, and so much money was already spent on it.
. . . What's very disappointing is the belief that sacredness, in fact, can be mitigated."
Raymond said the agency's decision will most likely result in a lawsuit, probably by a collection of Hawaiian rights groups, including his own.
Native Hawaiian groups were invited to a discussion of the decision from 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesday at the UH Institute for Astronomy's Maikalani Advanced Technology Research Center at 34 Ohia Ku St. in Pukalani. It will be hosted by Caroline Blanco, assistant general counsel to the National Science Foundation.
Since the idea was first formally introduced in 2000, the National Science Foundation's plan to build the project in the national park has angered both Hawaiian activists and nature lovers alike - a reality apparently not lost on the foundation. Friends of Haleakala National Park also took a position against the project.
"Although major adverse environmental impacts will result, the construction of the (solar telescope) at the preferred Mees (Solar Observatory) site represents an opportunity to implement a critical and unique astronomical resource that is expected to be useful and innovative for several decades to come," according to the National Science Foundation board of directors' summary report.
"Increasing our understanding of the sun and its ability to affect life on Earth will go a long way toward helping us predict certain catastrophic events and provide us with the opportunity to address the potential consequences."
The telescope is expected to help predict and prepare for disasters caused here and in orbit by radioactive "coronal mass ejections" that disable electronics and endanger the lives of astronauts and air travelers.
At a little more than 10,000 feet high and located in the Pacific Ocean on the planet's most isolated archipelago, Haleakala and the Big Island's Mauna Kea are revered by astronomers for their predictable and mild weather patterns as well as clean and clear views of the atmosphere and space.
However, Native Hawaiian advocate Foster Ampong noted that Maui was just one of 70 sites considered by the National Science Foundation, including two other finalists far away from Hawaii.
"It seemed to me like UH was more eager for bragging rights than for anything else," Ampong said.
The National Science Foundation issued its 114-page "record of decision" Dec. 3. And within hours, the federal agency sent out the first requests for proposals to potential contractors seeking to build the telescope's building and its 4.24-meter mirror.
The entire decision and the final environmental impact statement and other related documents can be found online at atst.nso.edu/nsf-env.
For more information from those opposed to the telescope, go online to kilakilahalea kala.org.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Solar telescope. Maui Community College Chancellor Clyde Sakamoto said he was misquoted in a story published Thursday on Page A1 and continued on A4. The story reported Haleakala's selection as the site for an Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, and Sakamoto said his quote should have read that the telescope education program would be a "marriage between Native Hawaiian culture and science."
The story also misstated the health of kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. He and his family members say he's in good health.
The Maui News apologizes for the error.