For nearly half a century, the state of Hawaii and the University of Hawaii have failed their legal responsibility to properly manage Mauna Kea. Their mismanagement continued despite constant calls for reform from the community and the state auditor.

A review of this well-documented mismanagement leads to one conclusion: Appropriate management will only be achieved when control over the mountain is wrestled away from the university and an entirely new management structure is installed.

Ultimately, this is the goal of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ lawsuit that was filed in November.

Snow on Mauna Kea in December 2016. OHA is suing the state and the University of Hawaii over management of the mountain, which is considered sacred by many Native Hawaiians.

Twitter/Leslie E. Shirkey Jr.

Years of complaints from the community resulted in the state auditor issuing four reports that slammed the state and UH for their failure as stewards. The first audit in 1998 was particularly severe, finding that UH prioritized astronomical development at the expense of properly caring for Mauna Kea’s natural and cultural resources. All subsequent audits continued to document critical deficiencies in UH’s management.

While UH argues that the first audit served as a “wakeup call” that led to improvements, the truth is that the state’s and the university’s failure to meaningfully implement any management structure can only be resolved by a complete overhaul in management authority.

Broken From The Start

Perhaps the biggest management failures are found in the inadequate leases, subleases and conservation district permits for Mauna Kea. These agreements should be the state’s most important management tools to protect the mountain. Unfortunately, these tools were broken from the start.

In 1998, the auditor noted that the permit conditions placed on the university are “often broad, general and difficult to enforce.” In UH’s effort to create a world-class center for astronomy, it overlooked creating proper subleases and permits for telescopes, with no accountability from the state’s Board of Land and Natural Resources, the owner of UH’s Mauna Kea lands.

These leases and permits provide the state with practically no oversight authority. Over the years, state audits noted that the leases and permits do not allow the BLNR to directly fine observatories for violations and that permits have no expiration date, preventing decades-old permit conditions from being updated.

If that is not appalling enough, these subleases do not expressly require compliance with the 2009 comprehensive management plan, which the university has championed as a game changer for its stewardship of the mauna.

Probably the most egregious flaw with the subleases is their rents — or the lack thereof. Instead of charging sufficient rent to help cover the cost of managing the mountain’s natural resources, the university has negotiated free viewing time from the observatories in exchange for nominal or gratis rents.

To this day, no observatory pays more than $1 a year for use of the mauna. This means that taxpayers and students are left to foot the bill for the management of natural and cultural resources.

Under UH, management for the mountain has and always will take a back seat to astronomy.

For years, the state auditor urged the BLNR and UH to review and update these leases, subleases, permits and agreements. In 2014, the auditor noted that these subleases still “lack provisions providing for adequate stewardship of Mauna Kea, such as ones addressing cultural and historical preservation.”

In addition, over the years the auditor has identified numerous other management deficiencies by the university that still persist today. These include:

  • “tolerating” multiple management plans at once (in 2014, the auditor noted that there are currently six plans governing management);
  • submitting plans to BLNR late (the first five-year update for the 2009 Comprehensive Management Plan has yet to be issued);
  • only partially implementing management plans (UH has failed to adequately implement 32 of the 54 management actions in the CMP that specifically affect Native Hawaiians); and
  • failing to adopt a single administrative rule to regulate commercial activity and public access (despite first being told to do so by the auditor in 1998 and receiving rule-making authority from the Legislature in 2009).   

The fundamental problem with the management of Mauna Kea is the university. UH is primarily an educational institution. It has failed to demonstrate any ability or willingness to be a proper land manager. All of its decisions over the last 50 years have supported astronomy research at the expense of everything else.

Under UH, management for the mountain has and always will take a back seat to astronomy. The state, through the BLNR, has done nothing to hold UH accountable in its decades of mismanagement. This is not in the best interest of the mauna or the public.

Nothing UH can say will change that. It’s time for a complete overhaul of the management structure on the mauna.

Half a century of empty promises to the public, Native Hawaiians and — most importantly — to the mauna is unacceptable.

Mauna Kea deserves better.

Editor’s note: Dan Ahuna was the chair of OHA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Mauna Kea.

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