A proposed working group that would determine the future of Mauna Kea is already creating divisions among those who both support and oppose astronomy on the mountain, among Native Hawaiian groups, and among lawmakers in the Legislature.

A joint panel of House legislators advanced resolutions Thursday morning that would form the working group. The proposals, House Resolution 33 and House Concurrent Resolution 41, now await a vote before the full 51-member House.

But it’s not yet clear that the working group, meant to bring together stakeholders in government and Hawaiian communities, will be successful in bridging divides over development on the mountain. 

At a 90-minute hearing on the resolutions Thursday, lawmakers heard concerns over the composition of the group and what exactly it should accomplish. Despite those concerns, the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs and Water and Land committees voted to move forward with the proposals while only making technical, non-substantive amendments.

TMT Demonstrators gather at the ahu or altar near entrance of Mauna kea Access Road. Near Kipuka Pu’u Huluhulu, native tree sanctuary and trail.
A working group that would propose a new governance structure for Mauna Kea has already created divisions among the mountain’s stakeholders. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Only Reps. Dale Kobayashi and Gene Ward cast no votes.

The concurrent resolution is expected to run into opposition in the Senate, where Sen. Lorraine Inouye, the chairwoman of the Water and Land Committee, has already refused to give it a hearing.

However, the working group can still move forward as long as House Resolution 33 clears the 51-member chamber, Rep. David Tarnas said.

Its support in the broader public might be tenuous, however. Some who testified on Thursday, and even some lawmakers, see the resolutions as another way to steamroll opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope planned for construction on the summit.

“HCR 41 and HR 33 would attempt to create the illusion of inclusion while ensuring the majority of the voices will always favor the foregone conclusion of the sponsors: to promote further development,” Deborah Ward, a Big Island resident, told lawmakers.

Hawaiian Membership

The working group would consist of 15-members, including seven Native Hawaiians.

There would be one representative each from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Board of Land and Natural Resources, the University of Hawaii Board of Regents and the Mauna Kea Observatories. House Speaker Scott Saiki would choose three House members and a chairperson to round out the group.

Healani Sonoda-Pale, a spokeswoman for the Ka Lahui Hawaii Komike Kalaiana, also feels that the resolution would help to push forward with TMT, which stalled in 2019 and is now seeking funding from the National Science Foundation.

“We don’t see this as a way to discuss management. We see this as a backdoor into finding a way to silence kiai and to build the TMT,” Sonoda-Pale told the lawmakers.

Healani Sonoda-Pale testifies during a Water, Land Hawaiian Affairs hearing at the Capitol.
Healani Sonoda-Pale, pictured in 2020, worries that the working group could be another way to push forward with TMT. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

However, other Hawaiian groups, even those opposed to TMT, support the idea of the working group. Those include several of the Hawaiian Civic Clubs on the Big Island.

Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, president of the Hawaiian Civic Club of Hilo, wrote in testimony to lawmakers that the process for selecting seven Hawaiian members, about half of the group’s membership, should be open and transparent.

The provision that Saiki would get to pick a majority of the members for the working group, including its Hawaiian members, has previously drawn criticism from activists.

“Failure to engage the large Native Hawaiian community in this process will contribute to the ongoing distrust and dissatisfaction for the State of Hawaii’s care of our sacred mauna and cultural resource,” Wong-Wilson wrote.

OHA also raised issues over the composition of the group. CEO Sylvia Hussey told lawmakers that lineal descendants of Hawaii island, cultural practitioners and members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I should be considered for the working group.

Astronomers Push Lease Extension

Some astronomy groups and Mauna Kea protesters like Wong-Wilson have actually found themselves on the same side on the working group. But while they might support the group, they have different goals.

The protesters and kiai, or protectors, would like to see astronomy end and TMT permanently halted. The observatories, meanwhile, hope the group can provide a path forward to get a key lease extension from the state.

Maunakea Observatories, which includes all 12 observatories operating on Mauna Kea, is among the working group’s supporters. Richard Matsuda, chief of operations for the W.M. Keck Observatory, told lawmakers that any discussion over governance should consider extension of UH’s master lease over the summit.

All the observatories operate under that master lease, which is expected to end in 2033 unless the BLNR grants UH a lease extension.

The observatories group indicated that the one seat on the 15-member working group that would represent astronomers is not enough.

Mauna Kea Summit. 9 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Maunakea Observatories wants to see more representation for astronomers on the working group. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The University of Hawaii wants lawmakers to define a clear objective for the working group. Greg Chun, UH’s director for Mauna Kea stewardship, was among those who called for greater Big Island representation on the working group.

Some supporters of astronomy are also divided on the issue. Thayne Currie, an astrophysicist at the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea, said he finds flaws in how the resolutions are written.

The resolutions target the University of Hawaii’s management of the mountain, which has been criticized by a string of auditor reports in the 1990s as well as another evaluation in December from a consultant that found UH still has trouble reaching Native Hawaiians.

Currie thinks UH has done well in managing the mountain, and that much of the criticisms of its management should instead be levied against the state. He also doesn’t think the resolution would resolve many of the underlying issues the conflict over TMT has brought to light.

“This will not fully fund DHHL, resolve issues over Mauna Kea Access Road, or resolve issues over Hawaiian Sovereignty,” Currie said.

Proposal Advances Despite Objections

Lawmakers also have differing opinions regarding the working group and how to best move forward on Mauna Kea. A majority of state lawmakers support construction of TMT on Mauna Kea, but Rep. Dale Kobayashi is not one of them.

He sees the resolutions as just another way to push forward on astronomy development on Mauna Kea.

“If you fool me once, shame on you, if you fool me twice, shame on me,” Kobayashi said. “This is a situation where, ‘fool me hundreds of times over hundreds of years.’”

He continued: “This is for folks who woke up one day and decided to support astronomy over the wishes of people … this is just more of what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years.”

Rep. Gene Ward doesn’t see the point of continuing discussion on Mauna Kea if Hawaii has already lost TMT. Mauna Kea is still the organization’s preferred site, but the observatory has also eyed a location in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.

“If it’s moot, we are just talking about nothing for nothing,” Ward said.

Senator Lorraine Inouye debate on carbon tax in the Senate.
Sen. Lorraine Inouye won’t give the House proposal on Mauna Kea a hearing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Other lawmakers, particularly those on the Big Island, hope it can help bridge some of the divides in their communities over the astronomy issue.

Rep. Nicole Lowen, who represents parts of West Hawaii, said the membership of the group still needs work.

“There’s not one voice of the people that’s a monolith, there’s a lot of different views on this. And there needs to be continuing work to come to some kind of consensus,” Lowen said.

HCR 41 is expected to be dead on arrival if it moves to the Senate.

Inouye already informed Tarnas and Saiki that she does not plan to give the resolution a hearing if it is referred to her committee.

“We already made a commitment to support astronomy,” Inouye said in a phone interview. She added that UH and its Board of Regents have already taken steps to improving management of the mountain.

The House still plans to forge ahead and create the working group even if the Senate does not support the proposal.

Join us for a virtual Legislative Update event to check-in with a panel of lawmakers halfway through the session:


Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author