Park managers and native Hawaiians are objecting to a plan to build a solar telescope, raised nearly 44 metres above the ground, next to Haleakala National Park on the Hawaiian island of Maui. They say the project could harm endangered species and would erode the value of the region as a natural resource and cultural site.

Will the world's biggest solar telescope displace the goddess of mist? Credit: T. KEKONA/K. C. ENVIRONMENTAL/F. RIZZO

“The whole purpose of a national park system is to ensure that such places aren't compromised,” says Marilyn Parris, the park's superintendent.

The proposed Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) would tower above a cluster of smaller facilities already in use a few hundred metres from the Haleakala summit, traditionally revered by Hawaiians as the home of the mist goddess Lilinoe.

With its four-metre aperture, ATST would be the largest solar telescope ever built, and it is intended to allow solar physicists to better understand the dynamics of the Sun's magnetic field. The project is spearheaded by the National Solar Observatory, and collaborators include the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy and the US Air Force Research Laboratory. If the $230-million project wins approval, construction may begin as early as 2009.

Installing the ATST high up, where there is less air turbulence, and in Maui's relatively dust-free, stable atmosphere, would give physicists the best chance of resolving magnetic features on the Sun's surface spanning some 30 kilometres across, explains Craig Foltz, programme manager at the US National Science Foundation. “Believe me, if we could build it smaller and lower, we would,” he adds.

But in a letter last month to the National Science Board, which will need to approve the project, the National Park Service's regional director Jonathan Jarvis argued that replacing Haleakala's summit with a man-made structure as the tallest feature on Maui would completely alter the visitor experience. And with the only access to the observatory site being through the national park, he is worried that construction vehicles will damage the narrow 1930s road and harm endangered nene and 'ua'u bird populations.

Because the Haleakala summit carries cultural and spiritual significance for Hawaiian people, an added concern is that further development will erode the spiritual value of the mountain top for native Hawaiians.

“We're not against science and the acquisition of knowledge, but science has ethics,” says Ed Lindsey, a native Hawaiian and president of Maui Cultural Lands, a Maui-based organization set up to protect and restore Hawaiian cultural resources. “If you destroy things that have meaning to native people, you ultimately destroy the people.” Lindsey says Maui Cultural Lands is prepared to file a lawsuit if all else fails.