WAILUKU - The state Board of Land and Natural Resources has cleared the final hurdles, in all likelihood, to allowing for construction to begin in the next several months on the $298 million solar telescope atop Haleakala.
On Wednesday, board members voted to grant a conservation district use permit and approved the land management plan for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope during a meeting in Honolulu. They reviewed more than 1,800 pages of documents to arrive at their decision, according to a University of Hawaii-Manoa news release issued Friday.
"December 1 was an important day with a very important decision," said UH Institute of Astronomy Director Rolf-Peter Kudritzki. "This is a milestone for the future of astronomy in Hawaii."
There is a big "if," though, about whether the project will proceed, said Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. attorneys Alan Murakami and Sharla Manley. The attorneys for Kilakila O Haleakala, a group of Maui County Native Hawaiians and their supporters, have filed a lawsuit and said they plan to submit a request for a contested case hearing, either of which could, at the very least, delay the project longer, if not sink it altogether.
Building the telescope is expected to take seven years to complete and provide perhaps hundreds of construction jobs and almost three dozen full-time positions at the facility as well as establish a UH-Maui College program aimed at providing a labor pool of local Native Hawaiians for scientific positions at the telescope. The National Science Foundation, which is funding the telescope project, has also dedicated $20 million over the next 10 years for an educational program that melds Native Hawaiian culture with math, science, technology and engineering.
The management plan will serve as the guiding document for how the institute will oversee the site. The permit "defines the terms and conditions for the construction and operation of the ATST there," according to a news release issued Friday by the university.
The National Solar Observatory and UH astronomers will oversee most of the operations and research.
"When it becomes operational in 2017, ATST will be the world's largest solar telescope and will enable solar scientists throughout the world to study solar activity in exquisite detail," according to the news release.
Institute officials already have conducted site inspections and completed two environmental impact statements and an environmental assessment for the project over the past five years, said Mike Maberry, the institute's assistant director for external relations.
However, telescope opponents say Haleakala is sacred and there is no way to build the telescope and mitigate the impacts on the cultural significance of the area. The site research team found other potential locations in the Caribbean and South America, they've noted.
Manley said her clients have been denied due process under the law. The federal and state governments' environmental impact studies stated that the project would have a negative cultural impact.
How, she asked, can they reconcile findings of detrimental impact with the decision to move forward?
That's why Kilakila O Haleakala filed a lawsuit in 1st Circuit Court in Honolulu seeking a third environmental study, which would be a much more comprehensive study for the management plan. The contested case hearing, which is a state administrative process, is to reconsider the conservation district use permit application, Manley said.
Maberry declined to comment on the significance of Wednesday's vote, noting the controversial nature of the project. Outgoing Board of Land and Natural Resources Chairwoman Laura Thielen did not return messages seeking comment Friday.
Maberry noted that the National Science Foundation had partnered with a number of Native Hawaiians to form a working group committee and make sure that access is provided to the site by cultural practitioners "and make sure it has minimal impact."
Project leaders also have pledged to regularly consult with the Native Hawaiian working group and plan to hire a cultural practitioner to be on site at all times during construction. Most of the contractors still need to be selected as well, officials said.
With the struggling economy and construction jobs difficult to come by, the project has cracked friendships and brought people to tears and near-violent outbursts at more than 50 public meetings and hearings over the past several years. Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners and opponents often refer to the nearly all-white building design (so it will reflect the sun's heat) as a "monstrosity."
Supporters, though, have argued that they've tried to involve Native Hawaiian groups to help design nearly 14-story building's exterior and provide nearly unlimited access to the land within the the 18-acre Haleakala High Altitude Observatories site, otherwise known as Science City, where the telescope will be located.
For more information about the project, go online to atst.nso.edu.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.