Last week Hawaii’s Supreme Court rescinded the construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), an estimated $1.4-billion observatory planned for Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano whose red dusted slopes rise 4,205 meters above the Pacific Ocean on the island of Hawaii. The court’s decision is the most recent battle wound in a years-long contest between astronomers and native Hawaiians as well as environmentalists who oppose the construction because of the sanctity of the mountain. The controversy is nothing new: Mauna Kea is the latest in a long line of mountaintops that have become combat zones between scientists and activists. These previous skirmishes share some illuminating similarities with the latest situation, revealing just how fraught astronomy can be when it clashes with local communities.

The very qualities that make many sites valuable to science—remote locations far from city lights, summits soaring above a good chunk of the atmosphere and clear views that sweep from horizon to horizon—often also draw native worshippers who value mountains as spiritual homes of the gods as well as environmentalists aiming to protect the vulnerable ecosystems of pristine regions.

In the late 1980s, for example, Mount Graham, in Arizona, saw a bitter fight between astronomers, who wanted to build three telescopes—the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope and The Large Binocular Telescope (LBT)—and the San Carlos Apache Tribe, who perform religious ceremonies on the mountain. Environmental activists were also worried about the fate of the American red squirrel, which was on the verge of extinction. Ultimately the astronomy project—and the squirrel, whose fate was unaffected by the telescope—prevailed. The first two telescopes (which were relatively small in size and already fully funded at the time of the protests) sped through construction. The LBT, on the other hand, which required a larger plot of land and obscured the sacred peaks, faced 40 lawsuits, eight of which ended up before a federal appeals court. Ultimately an act of the U.S. Congress allowed it to move forward several years late.

In the 2000s the Kitt Peak National Observatory, built on the tribal reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation, became the site of another clash when the National Science Foundation (NSF) wanted to build a new $13-million telescope complex called VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System). In 2005 the tribe successfully put a stop to the project, spurring the NSF to decide to build it elsewhere. Around the same time a Hawaiian lawsuit, largely brought by the same petitioners that now stands against the TMT, successfully prevented the construction of a quartet of small telescopes that had been proposed to accompany the existing W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea.

Common threads
These controversies share many features in common, says Leandra Swanner, a science sociologist and historian at Arizona State University in Tempe. The first source of similarity dates back to before these projects were even conceived. Astronomers first leased properties on Kitt Peak and Mauna Kea in 1958 and 1968, respectively, during a time when native groups and environmentalists had less power to oppose them. Astronomers were therefore blindsided when, a few decades later, cultural tides had shifted and they met harsh opposition to the new projects. They found themselves having to defend the value of astronomical observatories—projects they saw as self-evidently noble—to skeptical local communities.

And for both the TMT and the LBT debates, colonialism hangs heavily over the controversy. The use of sacred American Indian land for the LBT seemed like one more encroachment on native land rights after centuries of infringements by European settlers going back to the 16th century. Hawaii, too, has a long history of Westerners wresting control of land from native Hawaiians and pursuing development projects to the detriment of the environment. Against this backdrop, the TMT in the view of indigenous people is the latest episode of Western oppression on the islands. For the astronomers who see themselves as law-abiding citizens following terms of a lease that were laid down half a century ago, the “neocolonialist” characterization is alienating. “They see what they're doing as progress, as scientific advancement, and certainly not as a regressive act that is aligned with the period of historic marginalization of native people,” Swanner says.

The latest fracas, however, bears some telling differences from past controversies, Swanner says. Environmental activists on Mount Graham, for example, included Earth First!—a group known to directly sabotage construction projects and lead violent rallies—whereas the Mauna Kea protest is taking place “in the spirit of ‘aloha,’” or peace, according to its leaders, meaning the activists do not stand against anyone, they simply stand for their mountain. “There is a certain community that is born with that particular kind of isolation in the Pacific that we don't see in the sprawling desert in the Southwest” where environmental activists will come and go as they please, Swanner says. “So environmentalists on the Mauna Kea side have fallen in with the principles of aloha more squarely then I would say the environmentalists in the Mount Graham case have adopted Apache principles in passive resistance.”

Lessons learned
In some cases, astronomers have learned from past examples to navigate construction projects more sensitively. The National Science Foundation, for example, altered its tactics after it had to move VERITAS to a second-choice location. During its current project to build the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope on the summit of Haleakala, the shield volcano that forms most of Maui, observatory leaders have held more than 30 meetings with activists and committed to payments of $2 million a year to University of Hawaii Maui College. The project has seen some opposition but has been allowed to move forward. “I think it's a model for federal agencies conducting business in areas where there are potential cultural concerns,” says Caroline Blanco, the assistant general council for the environment at the NSF. “I think it's just a good way to keep that dialogue going.”

TMT leaders also tried to follow that model. “TMT, to their credit, has done more than any other observatory I've researched in making all kinds of gestures to the local community and to, in particular, the native Hawaiian community,” Swanner says. Planners conducted a thorough environmental impact investigation, they held over 300 sessions with the community and they committed to payments of $3 million a year to lease the site and fund science, technology, engineering and math programs for students.

These gestures, however, have failed to sway protesters. The continued opposition suggests that the project is now in uncharted territory. Although work on the telescope’s components has continued at sites outside Hawaii, whether and how the project will proceed is unclear. Swanner predicts it will likely move forward but may look radically different from the current plans. Peter Strittmatter, the president of the contentious Large Binocular Telescope, thinks the TMT will either be built as is or not at all. However it unfolds, the fate of the TMT will likely have repercussions on future standoffs around the world.