A working group led by House lawmakers wants to put Mauna Kea under new management after years of complaints that the University of Hawaii has not done enough to care for the mountain.

In a report released Friday, the group recommends creating a new governing entity controlled by a nine-member board comprised mostly of Native Hawaiians, Hawaii island residents or Hawaiian cultural practitioners who would oversee an astronomy district at Mauna Kea’s summit as well as lands stretching down to the 6,500-foot elevation level along the mountain’s slopes.

UH manages much of the lands above that elevation now but wouldn’t be included in this new management agency. Greg Chun, UH’s executive director of the Center for Maunakea Stewardship, acknowledged that there has been much criticism levied against UH in the past, but said the university has worked hard in the last several years to improve outreach to Hawaiian communities and take better care of the mountain.

Hilo Bay with the majestic view of Mauna Kea with tiny dots on the summit, the observatories.
The Legislature may push to restructure the management of Mauna Kea next session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Rep. Mark Nakashima, who led the working group, said UH’s duties would be transferred over to this new management entity over the next three years.

But many details for this new state agency still need to be worked out before lawmakers try to set it up during the next legislative session, Nakashima told reporters during a press conference Friday morning.

There’s no timeline yet for the transfer of powers between UH and the new governing entity. Lawmakers also don’t have clear projections for how much this new agency would cost. And it’s unclear how nearby private landowners could be affected.

A timeline for dismantling the current telescopes on the mountain, and a list of which of those 13 scopes should be decommissioned, is yet to be seen.

Nakashima said a lot of those details would be sorted out when lawmakers actually write the bill that would create this new management agency. The Legislature reconvenes Jan. 19, and any proposal would need to win approval from a majority of the House and Senate.

Rep. Mark Nakashima says more details will come when lawmakers draft a bill to create the new management agency. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2018

In addition to recommendations for a new management agency, the Mauna Kea Working Group’s report also recommends adopting Hawaiian viewpoints on environmental health and natural cycles to help guide the work of the new agency.

Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele said she is glad Hawaiians may soon have a greater say in what happens to Mauna Kea.

“I’m just happy at the fact that at this time we are allowed input into what goes on in the mountain,” she said.

Kanahele was a prominent leader in the protest movement to stop construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. Nakashima said that the working group tried to steer clear of discussions involving TMT since any decision on its future would be out of the group’s control.

The observatories on Mauna Kea also would not have representation on this new agency’s board. Instead, astronomers would only be able to make suggestions to the board in an advisory capacity.

“To say that group shouldn’t have representation is troublesome,” Chun said.

An independent evaluation of UH’s management plan found that public perception of UH’s management of Mauna Kea hinges on whether someone supports astronomy. Chun said the decision of whether to continue astronomy on the summit of Mauna Kea is a public policy decision the state needs to make as a whole.

Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele said she is glad Hawaiians may soon have a greater say in what happens to Mauna Kea. Screenshot/2021

UH oversees resource management of over 11,000 acres on Mauna Kea, according to Chun. It’s responsible for regulating access to certain areas of the mountain and educating the public about Mauna Kea. The working group proposal would seek to take over those management areas from UH while also managing additional state lands on Mauna Kea that aren’t under the auspices of the university right now.

Chun said the new entity would need to develop a management plan similar to those enacted by the university.

“I don’t think it’s just a matter of turning over current UH managed lands that needs to be considered here,” Chun said. “If they are talking about a much larger area … there are huge management implications the governing entity would need to consider.”

Earlier this year, House Speaker Scott Saiki announced that lawmakers would begin work on removing UH from managing Mauna Kea. The House formed the Mauna Kea Working Group, comprised mostly of Native Hawaiians, to lead that effort.

The Legislature has tried and failed in the past to form a new state agency that would manage Mauna Kea.

In 2018, lawmakers proposed a new Mauna Kea Management Authority, but the bill ultimately died late in session. Following protests in 2019 that blocked construction of the TMT, Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim also proposed a new agency to oversee Mauna Kea. However, the Legislature did little last year to move forward with any of Kim’s proposals.

In 2020, Saiki proposed a blue-ribbon commission to study the state’s relationship with Native Hawaiians and look for areas of improvement. That effort stalled when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Hawaii.

Read the working group’s report below.

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