The University of Hawaii could ultimately lose its management authority of Mauna Kea in three years and be replaced by a new governing body, according to a measure put forward by the state House. 

House Bill 2024 would create a nine-member voting panel consisting mostly of Native Hawaiians, cultural practitioners and Hawaii island residents to oversee the astronomy district. Other members include the heads of the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs or their representatives.

The measure would also create two subgroups of Native Hawaiians and astronomers to offer the panel advice from both perspectives when making decisions. 

The new panel would be in charge of developing a plan on how to manage land use, recreational use, stewardship, education, research and the overall operations above the 6,500 foot mark of the tallest mountain in Hawaii. 

Rep. Mark Nakashima introduced a measure that would strip the University of Hawaii’s management authority on Mauna Kea. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2018

If the bill becomes law, it would take three years – starting July 1 – to transfer land management responsibilities from UH to the new governing group.  

“We thought there would need to be a three-year transition period between the two entities because there are a number of moving parts that need to be resolved,” said Rep. Mark Nakashima, who planned to introduce the bill Wednesday after months of discussions from the Mauna Kea working group.

UH has managed most of the lands on the summit and slopes of the Big Island volcano in a 65-year lease granted by the state in 1968. But it has faced years of complaints that it hasn’t done enough to care for the mountain.

Some Native Hawaiians consider the mountain to be sacred and believe the construction of the telescopes is desecrating the site.

Plans to build the Thirty Meter Telescope, which would be the world’s largest optical telescope, sparked months of demonstrations from Native Hawaiians in 2019 after a Hawaii Supreme Court decision the year before cleared the way for construction to begin.

Funding issues and other concerns have prevented the project from moving forward, but Nakashima said TMT is a separate issue and it was not addressed in the bill.

UH declined to comment on the bill until it submits written testimony in the coming weeks, but it has presented its case on why it should maintain stewardship to a Mauna Kea working group, which was created last year by a resolution.

In its response to the working group, UH said it embraces different perspectives and wants to continue its stewardship of the mountain. It also argued that astronomy could be affected in Hawaii without its management; the complexities and costs of managing access to public lands have been underestimated and cited legal and administrative concerns.

UH regents approved a new Mauna Kea Master Plan. Screenshot/2020

Last week, the UH Board of Regents adopted a new master plan detailing how it would manage the lands on Mauna Kea, including limiting the number of telescopes from 13 to nine after 2033. 

The plan named “E O I Na Leo” or “Listen to the Voices,” laid out UH’s objectives to continue managing Mauna Kea, maintain the university’s status as a leader in astronomy, expand scientific research beyond astronomy and find balance between research, cultural practice and recreational visits to the mountain.

That plan may be scrapped if the new panel is created, although the panel may retain elements as part of its own management plan, Nakashima said. Once the panel develops a concrete management plan, it would have to be updated every 10 years, according to the bill.

“As we go through the legislative process, I’m sure that we will have the opportunity to look at both plans and perhaps come up with a better plan,” said Nakashima, chair of the Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs.

Even with a proposed panel of mostly Native Hawaiians, the bill already drew criticism.

Kealoha Pisciotta was critical. The president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, a Native Hawaiian group that challenged the Thirty Meter Telescope’s development on Mauna Kea, said the state needs to stop creating entities without community input. 

“The state needs to stop trying to create things without the community. If the community is not involved then it’s just status quo,” she said. “When the process lacks integrity, so will the outcome.”

Mauna Kea summit view from TMT site looking up towards the Keck and Subaru telescopes. 9 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Mauna Kea currently has 13 telescopes. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The panel also would be tasked with requiring an application for recreational uses including fees, and requiring visitors to attend an annual orientation. The panel also would create a Mauna Kea entry site for an education outreach post and collecting fees.

The panel also would be in charge of lease agreements with the astronomers and their telescopes.

“The Maunakea Observatories thank the leadership and members of the Working Group for their efforts in creating the report underlying House Bill 2024, and for including a representative of the Observatories as a member of the Working Group to contribute to the process,” Hilton Lewis, director of W. M. Keck Observatory, said in an email statement. “We openly and fully acknowledge the importance of Maunakea to Native Hawaiians, and support Native Hawaiian involvement in the future governance of Maunakea.”

However, he urged officials to consider several revisions to the bill including “specific, realistic timelines for establishing this new governing entity; a viable long-term funding model that outlines a plan to replace the budgetary contributions currently made by the University of Hawaii; and the inclusion of an astronomy representative on the governing board.”

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