mountain profile Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

Mauna Kea Infrastructure: First Steps

Maintained by CGWW

Puu Poliahu
access road

Soon after receiving the 84-inch contract I made a list on the board in my office consisting of three items "Road, Power, Mid-level" . These were the most urgent needs for the Mauna Kea infrastructure. This inscription survived two moves of my office but it was 17 years before I was able to erase one of these (the mid-level) and it was left to my successor to see the completion of the other two. Early in the piece I had made what was destined to be an unfortunate choice in favoring the town of Waimea rather than Hilo for our base of operations on the Big Island. I thought, naively, that the matter was settled when my preference was heartily endorsed by Governor Burns. To add to the attraction, Richard Smart (who owned the Parker Ranch) wrote offering us land for our base and mid-level facilities as well as access through his Ranch for a road to the summit that would, of course, have gone up the west side of the mountain and thus saved a great deal of travel time. But the Hilo politicians were adamantly opposed and I was too new to the Islands to recognize the inevitable and, to my eternal regret, persisted in this vision. Finally it became clear that the Governor had not the power to insist and I had to surrender.

I was misguided enough to think that we could now go ahead with the power line and road. However the Governor had decided in the interim that he would not approve construction of a road above Hale Pohaku. He had become locked into the idea of providing summit access via a cable car. I suppose we could have got State funding for this but it seemed a nutty idea to me and I concluded that we would have to accept a delay while trying to change the Governor’s mind. But all this cost us a lot of time and it wasn’t until 1972 that he finally capitulated and agreed that a road could be built - in two increments starting with the lower section from the Saddle road to Hale Pohaku.

But during the time lost in arguing about the alignment, and then about the form of the access, the first of the environmental laws had been enacted and we were caught at the beginning of some very confusing times with no-one seeming to know exactly what the law mandated. In the wake of all this came a whole new group of players many of whom saw us as a band of vandals intent on raping the natural environment, killing all the native fauna, destroying its flora, dispersing the ancient Hawaiian artifacts, and prohibiting access to the mountain for local residences. If we had made a decision on the road alignment in 1965, as we well could have done, our entire infrastructure could have been finished by the early 1970's – and with no less attention given to the impact on the mountain. As it was, for years we had to make do with (and maintain) an abominable access road, make do with fractious power generators and find accommodation in the primitive shelter at Hale Pohaku left over from the construction camp for the 88-inch telescope.

The long and bitter struggles over the development of Mauna Kea - for a road, a power line, a mid-level facility, for each new telescope – are too lengthy to discuss here. I confess to retaining some bitterness over the bullying treatment and false accusations and harassment that I and my staff suffered from appointed officials and bureaucrats but in the end the Land Board did support our requests for new telescopes and the facilities to support them. There were perilous moments for the future of astronomy however as when one of the endless succession of advisory committees determined in its wisdom that the number of telescopes on Mauna Kea should be limited to a total of six – a position that seemed to gain some support among the supreme authority, the Land Board. I am not about to argue my approach to all this - empirically it was successful and that was what counted for me. Another person might have won this success more easily – but I find it hard to accept the proposition of a priggish visiting scientist that ‘it is only a matter of talking to these people’ (the anti-development movement), ‘they’ll understand ’. I must ruefully confess, too, to finding some comfort in observing our problems on Mauna Kea mirrored almost precisely, mutatis mutandis, in the experiences of the Arizona astronomers on Mt Graham.