TMT scientists selected Maunakea in July 2009 after a rigorous five-year campaign spanning the entire globe that measured virtually every atmospheric feature that might affect the performance of the telescope. To gather the necessary measurements to guide the identification of the optimum site, TMT mounted the most comprehensive site testing campaign ever carried out. Five candidate sites, including the site on Maunakea, were identified for detailed on-site measurements, as all were expected to potentially have outstanding qualities. The key atmospheric properties above the sites that affect the operation and performance of astronomical telescope systems were measured; most importantly, optical turbulence levels as a function of height above the site, cloud properties and atmospheric transmission, precipitable water vapor levels, and meteorological parameters such as wind speed, direction, air temperature, solar radiation and cooling rates of the ground.
During the TMT site testing campaign, some of the best conditions that were ever encountered at any of the candidate sites were at Maunakea. Located above approximately 40 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, Maunakea has a climate that is particularly stable, dry, and cold; all of which are important characteristics for capturing the sharpest images and producing the best science. In addition, the atmosphere over Maunakea offers exceptional conditions for astronomical measurements with adaptive optics which will be equipped on TMT. As a result, TMT will likely revolutionize our understanding of the universe.
Community outreach and engagement have been important to TMT from the start. Over the last 10 years, the project has held more than 20 public meetings, participated in hundreds of one-on-one meetings and group presentations, and has engaged in open dialog and meaningful discussions with community members and stakeholders to better understand the island’s issues as well as the cultural and natural significance of Maunakea.
After listening to the community and hearing their concerns for the future of the island’s youth, and their support for education that could lead to high tech jobs, TMT committed to fund $1million a year for STEM education on the island. TMT, with local advice, asked a group of on-island leaders to determine how best to use $1 million a year for STEM education. After meeting for two years, the group fleshed out what is now the THINK Fund. TMT’s $1 million annual contribution is distributed through the THINK Fund at Hawaii Community Foundation ($750,000) for grants, scholarships and endowment and the THINK Fund at Pauahi Foundation ($250,000) for scholarships. The THINK Fund – short for The Hawaii Island New Knowledge launched in 2014 and is already making a difference in the critical areas of science, technology, engineering and math. To date, TMT has distributed $3.5 million: $2.5 million to THINK at the Hawaii Community Foundation and $1 million to the Pauahi Foundation.
TMT has also initiated the Workforce Pipeline Program to prepare Hawaii Island students for science and technology jobs. TMT is working with the State Department of Education, University of Hawaii Hilo, Hawaii Community College, Hawaii County government, and nonprofit organizations to strengthen STEM skills infrastructure at UH Hilo, HCC and K-12 education organizations serving low income and first-generation college attending populations. Currently, the project funds, supports and participates in programs that are committed to helping Hawaii Island students achieve success at becoming self-directed, lifelong learners who think critically and creatively and function as caring, responsible, productive members of society. TMT is committed to spend additional funds each year on its Workforce Pipeline Program when fully operational.
TMT continues to engage the community through meetings, group presentations and events.
TMT has diligently followed the state’s laws, procedures, and processes in its efforts to build TMT on Maunakea:
Environmental Impact Statement – A very extensive environmental impact statement was prepared that involved a large number of careful studies, including assessments of environmental, archeological, and cultural impacts specifically for the TMT project. The results of these studies guided many design choices for the TMT. The TMT Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was approved in May 2010 after a two-year public review and input process. The FEIS was not challenged following approval.
Conservation District Use Permit – All University of Hawaii-managed lands on Maunakea, including the site for TMT, are in a conservation district, which requires a Conservation District Use Permit approved by the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR). Following a year-long contested case hearing that included seven days of testimony over the course of two months, the BLNR issued a CDUP to the University of Hawaii at Hilo for the construction of TMT on Maunakea.
Rent for Stewardship of the Mountain – TMT pledged to pay a lease on the land. In a first for any telescope on the mountain, TMT is paying a $1 million per year lease. Eighty percent of the lease rent goes to the Office of Mauna Kea Management to malama (steward) the mountain and the remaining twenty percent goes to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Consent to Sublease – In 2014, the Board of Land & Natural Resources approved a sublease between the University of Hawaii and the TMT International Observatory, under General Lease No. S-4191, which UH held from the state.
Over the last few years, TMT has experienced several unforeseen challenges, starting with the halting of its official groundbreaking ceremony by protestors in October 2014. Subsequent protests on the mountain prevented the start of construction on two separate occasions.
The Courts also invalidated the Conservation District Use Permit (CDUP) and the Consent to Sublease after questioning the state’s legal process. Those two key elements are pending as follows:
CDUP Contested Case – Work on the telescope on Maunakea was halted in 2015 when the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated the Conservation District Use Permit issued by the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) to the University of Hawaii – Hilo to build TMT on Maunakea. At the time the permit was initially granted, a contested case hearing was also approved, as was a stay on construction pending the outcome of the contested case hearing. The Supreme Court returned the case to the Hawaii Circuit Court and instructed that a new contested case hearing be conducted before the Board. The contested case got underway in October 2016. Following 44 days of testimony by 71 witnesses over five months, that hearing concluded in early March 2017. After studying all testimony and data, hearings officer Riki May Amano in July 2017 recommended that a state Conservation District Use Permit be re-issued to allow construction of the project on Maunakea. On Thursday, September 28, the State Land Board announced its decision to approve the Conservation District Use Permit to build TMT on Maunakea.
Consent to the Sublease – On August 8, 2018, the Hawaii Supreme Court issued its unanimous and favorable decision in the Consent to Sublease appeal reversing the decision of the lower court and finding that Kalani Flores was not entitled to a contested case hearing on BLNR’s Consent to the Sublease between TIO and the University. As a result, the sublease is valid.
On Thursday, September 28, 2017 the State Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) announced its decision to grant the Conservation District Use Permit to the University of Hawaii Hilo to build TMT on Maunakea. TMT is now assessing its next steps. TMT is also awaiting resolution on the state’s consent to the University of Hawaii’s sublease to the TMT International Observatory. The issue is currently with the Hawaii State Supreme Court.