- Special Projects
On the afternoon of the 176th day of his first term, and in perhaps the least likely of places, Gov. David Ige truly found his voice.
He was speaking to the abiding controversy between proponents of the groundbreaking Thirty Meter Telescope project and protectors of a mountain that has held a revered place in Native Hawaiian culture and religion for hundreds of years.
It may have been a long time coming — Ige halted construction on the telescope site 50 days ago — but the governor made sure that when he finally opened his mouth, he had something to say, something worthy of the moment.
In an announcement that respectfully navigated the waters between the scientific and the sacred, Ige clearly supported TMT’s legal right to move forward, while also offering a frank assessment of the state of affairs at the summit: “We have in many ways failed the mountain. … We have not done right by a very special place, and we must act immediately to change that.”
This was no glib observation. Ige has clearly spent the past seven weeks listening, drawing from a range of individuals, groups and schools of thought on what has and should be allowed at the summit. It was also personally informed, based on his observation that over the past 20 years, science “has gotten way ahead of culture on the mountain.”
“It … feels entirely wrong,” said Ige. “Mauna Kea is a special place, and we need to treat it like a special place.”
The governor’s 12-point plan on how to move forward asks for fundamental changes to the way the University of Hawaii manages the summit under its long-term lease and what voices will be dominant in Mauna Kea matters. Chief among those is a request that the university give back control of 10,000 acres “not specifically needed for astronomy.” This is a linchpin in the governor’s overall strategy to bring the mountain under “culture-based management.”
Such a management strategy would be led by a new group being established by the governor — the Mauna Kea Cultural Council, which will have review responsibilities for all leases and renewals whether for scientific or cultural purposes, proposed rules that would have an impact on the mountain and environmental and cultural impact studies. It would also be responsible for reconciling other mountain uses, “including native species protection and forestry.”
The land give-back isn’t the only ask of UH. Ige also wants the university to decommission as many of the 12 telescopes currently on Mauna Kea as possible, beginning with one this year and at least three by the time TMT begins operations.
Further, he asks UH to commit that TMT, a telescope that will be capable of looking 13 billion light years into the distance, represents the “last area on the mountain where a telescope project will be contemplated or sought.”
Ige also wants UH to reduce the length of its requested lease renewal and re-start the renewal’s environmental impact study, including within it a full cultural impact assessment.
There are additional points regarding meaningful, respectful stewardship, use of scheduled telescope time, exacting greater payments from telescope tenants and increasing TMT’s support of Native Hawaiian science students, but the previous provisions are the ones that will cause the university to bend the furthest. And as Civil Beat’s Anita Hofschneider reported, in a press conference following the governor’s, UH President David Lassner seemed ready to accommodate what he called generally reasonable requests.
While Mauna Kea Protectors and their allies are rightly skeptical about promises they’ve heard before, it must be noted that they didn’t hear them with this specificity, nor did they hear them in the current context from the state’s governor.
“We agree that the university can and must do better, and we apologize for where our efforts have fallen short,” Lassner said, promising a more complete response to the governor’s plans later this week.
TMT officials also voiced agreement on working under the framework outlined by the governor.
Ige’s announcement was met with disappointment from several leaders of Native Hawaiian groups protesting at the TMT site who called Ige’s proposals “hollow” and said some of the same ideas were already on the table before Ige’s intervention. They promised continued protests and predicted Ige will now be on the hook for any protestor arrests on the summit going forward.
While the Mauna Kea Protectors and their allies are rightly skeptical about promises they’ve heard before, it must be noted that they didn’t hear them with the specificity put forward Tuesday, nor did they hear them in the current political context from the state’s sitting governor. Rather than offering dire predictions about the path ahead or admonitions against Native Hawaiians taking part in the governor’s new council, protectors would be well-advised to take central roles in a new approach that will affect Mauna Kea for generations ahead, long after the TMT has come and gone.
Plans built on compromise and intended to accommodate competing interests rarely make all parties happy — Ige’s is no exception. But it does answer, compellingly, one of the most central questions raised in the seemingly endless dialogue around the TMT project, one posed poignantly by UH law student Zuri Aki in an April column for Civil Beat: “When does Kanaka Maoli culture matter?”
“Like a beacon of hope for our ancestors, Mauna Kea now stands as a beacon of hope for us. It is a symbol of our identity, our strength, and a rallying cry to protect what matters most to us – life,” wrote Aki. “It is also a symbol that irresponsible, unsustainable, and highly destructive practices must come to an end.”
The protectors have done right by their ancestors and Kanaka Maoli culture in forcing these issues to the fore. There is no doubt that without that pressure, Gov. Ige wouldn’t have brought TMT’s development to a standstill or put forward his new and developing management plan, one that stands a strong chance of actually ending those “highly destructive practices.”
Along with many others, we will be watching closely the university’s detailed response to that plan. For now, though, this feels like the beginning of a just way forward.
For all who share the governor’s feeling that stately, snow-capped Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest mountain, is “a very special place” — a group that includes astronomers and protectors, university leaders and community critics, Native Hawaiians and haoles — this is a moment that must not be squandered. Let us all greet it with aloha.