Mauna Kea is the world's window to the universe.
The mountain on the island of Hawaii is an unparalleled place for astronomy, home to 13 observatories employing scientists from 11 countries. Mauna Kea also is a sacred place in Native Hawaiian culture, inspiring activists to try to protect the mountain from what they consider degradation.
The need to balance scientific discovery and respect for traditional beliefs; economic development and environmental protection; and progress and preservation have been constant themes as the global research community atop Mauna Kea has grown over the decades.
Continuing to seek that equilibrium is crucial as the state rightly clears the path for construction of the $1.3 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), capable of peering back practically to the beginning of time.
The TMT will be the catalyst for high-paying construction and technology jobs on the Big Island; for increased educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math for local elementary, high school and college students; and for international research collaborations that enhance Hawaii's reputation as a model for the world. Most of all, the TMT will be the catalyst for science -- science that advances all humankind's understanding of our place in the universe.
The telescope is being designed and financed by TMT Observatory Corp., a Pasadena, Calif.-based nonprofit, with research partners in California, Canada, Japan, China and India. As its website describes:?"A team of scientists, engineers, and project specialists is busily planning and designing what eventually will become the most advanced and powerful optical telescope on Earth. When completed ... the Thirty Meter Telescope will enable astronomers to study objects in our own solar system and stars throughout our Milky Way and its neighboring galaxies, and forming galaxies at the very edge of the observable universe, near the beginning of time."
So we applaud the University of Hawaii Board of Regents' approval Thursday of a long-term sublease agreement for the project, a crucial milestone for construction to begin on schedule in April. UH leases the land in question -- nine acres on the northern plateau below the summit of Mauna Kea -- from the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.
The land board approved the project in principle last spring, while imposing numerous conditions designed to assure proper stewardship of the priceless natural and cultural resource. Among them were the requirement that UH charge a "substantial amount"?of rent to be used solely for the management and stewardship of the mountain. Under the sublease terms, UH will charge $500,000 a year during the construction phase, expected to last at least until 2022, and $1.08 million a year once the telescope is operational. The land board should approve the sublease deal and allow the TMT to proceed, four years after the UH regents first signed off on the project.
It has been a long haul since then, with at least one court challenge remaining, to the project's permit. However, Attorney General David Louie argued persuasively in 3rd Circuit Court in Hilo last week that the land board followed proper procedures in granting a conservation district use permit allowing the TMT's construction. A contested-case hearing was held before the permit was granted, he noted. A ruling in that case is expected within a few weeks.
A decision favoring the TMT would be a victory for jobs, education and science -- signaling a fundamental recognition of Hawaii's premier standing in an increasingly connected world.