A top Hawaii lawmaker wants the University of Hawaii to step aside from managing Mauna Kea, the site of several prominent astronomy projects as well as Native Hawaiian-led protests that have halted construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

That conflict, House Speaker Scott Saiki said, is just one reason why governance of the mountain should be reorganized — a feat that has eluded lawmakers but one he hopes to accomplish with a new, diverse working group.

“Mauna Kea is a manifestation of what happens when we draw lines, work in silos and disregard different views,” Saiki said during in a floor speech Tuesday at the Hawaii State Capitol.

Hilo Bay with the majestic view of Mauna Kea with tiny dots on the summit, the observatories.
Management of Mauna Kea has been a political football for government leaders in recent years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Greg Chun, UH’s executive director of Mauna Kea stewardship, said that while UH is pleased to work with Saiki and others in determining a new management structure, the university would still like to play some role in managing the mauna.

Saiki said his announcement should not have come as a shock to university officials. He told reporters that he had spoken to UH President David Lassner Tuesday morning to let him know the announcement was coming. 

“I don’t think they were surprised by my remarks today,” he said.

In Saiki’s view the university over time has created a polarized relationship between scientists who want to build the new large telescope and those who oppose the project, mainly Native Hawaiian activists known as kiai, or protectors.

Saiki commended Lassner for trying to resolve the impasse but said it was time for the university to step aside.

Otherwise, he said, “there will just be a lot of conflict and litigation.”

The House plans to introduce a resolution to get the ball rolling on restructuring Mauna Kea’s management.

Saiki said a working group including those from protest groups would help decide the new governing structure for the mountaintop and its observatories. From that would likely flow changes like a new management plan and any statutory changes that would have to take place to put the changes into law.

However, Saiki stopped short of suggesting that the Legislature would address management through a new law this session.

He said he reached out to Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a prominent protest leader, Monday night. Wong-Wilson said Tuesday that she is optimistic for the new initiative though she is still waiting to hear much of the details.

Saiki also called on UH to end its pursuit of an extension for renewal of UH’s 65-year master lease that’s set to expire in 2033. 

The House speaker, along with most lawmakers, supports astronomy and TMT on the mountain. But he said, “A new governance structure would help to manage whatever assets are on Mauna Kea.”

Rep. David Tarnas, a Big Island lawmaker who Saiki tapped to help with the initiative, said he hopes the new governance structure would put management responsibilities back under the auspices of the Board of Land and Natural Resources.

“They have that statutory responsibility now. We envision they would continue to exercise that responsibility and prove direct leases to individual observatories, rather than UH having the master lease,” Tarnas said, adding that UH would still be a stakeholder in any new governance structure.

Not pursuing a master lease and involving UH to a lesser extent are both important points for telescope protesters, like Wong-Wilson.

The proposal is a sort of victory for the protesters, who have faulted UH for decades of mismanagement atop the mountain that has been documented in several auditors reports.

But since those reports, UH has become a better steward of the mountain, the state auditor wrote in a follow-up report in 2014.

House Speaker Scott Saiki speaks during brief session on a speech that was intended for opening day. February 2, 2021
House Speaker Scott Saiki on Tuesday called for a new management structure for Mauna Kea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Work on pursuing a renewal for the master lease has been paused, Chun said, while the university pursues other outreach efforts and continues work on decommissioning telescopes.

Chun said that after those activities are completed, the university will likely pursue renewing the master lease.

Saiki specifically wanted UH to abandon an environmental impact study for the master lease. That study has been paused as well, according to Chun, who also envisions that UH should still be part of the mountain’s governance structure.

“To the extent that the state continues to have a commitment towards astronomy on Mauna Kea, then it’s hard for me to imagine a new structure wouldn’t have the university, and quite frankly the observatories, at the table,” Chun said. “I’m not quite sure how you would ensure the future of astronomy, not just at UH but the other observatories, without those folks being at the table as well.”

Chun said UH’s preferred model is one in which a broad-based board within the university takes over managing the mountain.

He presented four options to the UH Board of Regents in April in which either an attached state agency takes over, control is transferred to the Board of Land and Natural Resources, a new third-party takes the reigns or a large policy council with multiple stakeholder groups including state organizations, observatories, Native Hawaiian groups and others all collectively decide what happens on Mauna Kea.

Saiki’s proposal comes nearly one year after legislative leaders, Gov. David Ige and former Big Island Mayor Harry Kim all pointed fingers at each other after failing to move forward on Mauna Kea in a meaningful way that appeases both TMT and some of the Native Hawaiian groups opposing it.

The Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory is occupied with securing funds from the federal government. It’s eyed a location in Spanish-controlled islands, but has remained firm on building on Mauna Kea. 

Saiki introduced a resolution last year proposing a commission to study historical wrongs done to Hawaiians. It was panned shortly after and never came to fruition as the pandemic stalled the legislative session.

Now, Wong-Wilson, a protest leader, hopes this new governance committee may finally be able to get community input right. Not including enough people, especially Hawaiians, in decision making processes for large projects has led to much opposition to things like telescopes, large wind farms and ball fields in 2019.

She hopes the committee will include a large swath of voices.

“We aren’t just talking about kiai, it is not up to us to decide what the new organization will be,” Wong-Wilson said. “There’s a much larger community that must be included in this.”

Protests on the mountain halted initial TMT construction in 2015. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the project’s status is on hold.

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