The Hawaii Senate on Tuesday passed a measure to wrest management of Mauna Kea from the University of Hawaii and establish a new entity to oversee the Big Island mountaintop.

The summit of Mauna Kea is considered sacred by some Native Hawaiians.

It’s also one of the world’s premiere places for astronomy and as a result has been a focal point of tension between international astronomers who have developed a collection of world-class observatories on the summit and Native activists who liken building on the summit to desecrating a church.

9 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Some of the telescope facilities atop Manua Kea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The controversy has stalled the University Hawaii’s efforts to oversee development of one of the world’s largest instruments to view celestial space. Known as the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory, the project is being developed by a partnership of institutions from the U.S., India, Japan, China and Canada.

In addition to setting up the Mauna Kea Management Authority, Senate Bill 3090 would limit the number of telescopes that could be established, authorize the new manager to renegotiate leases and permits pertaining to the mountaintop, and exclude Mauna Kea lands from the definition of “public lands” under state law.

The Senate’s unanimous vote to send the measure to the House came despite opposition from a variety of groups, including the University of Hawaii, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Hawaii County mayor’s office, Maunakea Observatories and Hawaii’s Thousand Friends.

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