A proposal to strip the University of Hawaii’s management authority of Mauna Kea and transfer responsibility for the land to a group made up mostly of Native Hawaiians cleared three committees Wednesday, setting it up for a full House vote in the coming days. 

House Bill 2024 passed out of the House committees on Water and Land, Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs, and Finance, with adjustments made in response to concerns raised by several stakeholders.

The amendments include giving UH representation on the new management panel as well as making the chair of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Board of Trustees a voting member of the group as opposed to OHA’s CEO. 

Hilo Bay with the majestic view of Mauna Kea with tiny dots on the summit, the observatories.
A group of House lawmakers are pushing a bill to strip the University of Hawaii’s authority to manage Mauna Kea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“Nothing earth-shattering,” said Rep. Mark Nakashima, who sponsored the bill and is chair of the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee. 

Lawmakers are considering adding a provision that would make a representative of the Maunakea Observatories a member of the panel, according to Rep. David Tarnas, who chairs the House Water and Land Committee. 

Tarnas said the bill is still a “work in progress.” 

“We recognize the paramount importance of Mauna Kea and the very serious responsibility we have to manage this public trust resource, and we acknowledge the very strong opinions on all sides of this issue,” Tarnas said. “The House is seeking a path forward that provides a substantive role for Native Hawaiians in decision-making about the management of Mauna Kea and provides a stable future for Mauna Kea.”  

The university has managed most of the lands on the summit and slopes of the mountain since 1968, under a 65-year lease granted by the state. But critics say that the university hasn’t done enough to care for the mountain, the tallest in Hawaii, and point to a long record of mismanagement. 

Although the university has improved its management practices, according to a report from a consultant who evaluated UH’s oversight of Mauna Kea, it still struggles to engage with the Native Hawaiian community. 

TMT Mauna Kea demonstrators hold their hands up and gesture the Mauna Kea hand symbol.
Demonstrators protesting telescopes on Mauna Kea in 2019 held up their hands in a symbol of the mountain. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Some Native Hawaiians have voiced concerns about the installation of telescopes on the mountain over the years and believe it has desecrated the site. 

If the bill becomes law, the new panel will be tasked with developing a plan for managing land use, recreational use, stewardship, education, research and overall operations above the 6,500 foot mark on Mauna Kea. The bill also calls for the formation of two advisory groups of Native Hawaiians and astronomers to inform the panel’s decision-making. 

Although passage of the bill could make the university’s recently adopted master plan for management of Mauna Kea obsolete, Nakashima said the proposed new panel could retain elements of the new UH plan as part of its own management plan. 

The bill calls for a three-year transition – starting July 1 – to transfer management responsibilities from the university to the new governing group. 

The bill originally prohibited commercial activities on the mountain. In the new version, such activities would be optional, subject to decisions of the new management panel.

The revised bill also adds calls for using Native Hawaiian principles to care for the land, and would have the management group refer to Mauna Kea as Mauna a Wakea as a symbol of cultural recognition. 

Senator Lorraine Inouye debate on carbon tax in the Senate.
Sen. Lorraine Inouye says she does not support HB 2024. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

If the bill clears the House, it will move on to the Senate where it faces probable opposition, including from the chair of a key Senate committee.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who chairs the Senate Water and Land Committee, said she will refuse to hear the bill if it’s sent to her committee. Inouye said she supports the university’s governance of the mountain and astronomy activities. 

“I’m not pleased with what’s transpiring in the House in regards to that measure,” Inouye said. “I’m not sure if the Senate would want to have this controversial issue.”

In testimony at previous hearings on the bill, backers and opponents have expressed strong views on management of the mountain. Some of their recommendations have been incorporated into the current bill.

Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, who was a part of a Mauna Kea working group created by House Speaker Scott Saiki, supported the current measure stripping UH of its management authority but said it was missing key components from the working group’s report.

“In the end we’re trying to do the best we can for the mauna (mountain),” Wong-Wilson said. 

Greg Chun, executive director for UH Hilo’s Center for Maunakea Stewardship which currently manages the mountain, testified against the House bill, stressing the importance of astronomical research. He also disputed cost estimates of managing access to public lands. 

Chun also expressed concerns related to “race-based membership of a government entity controlling state lands and resources,” and what he described as a lack of representation on the proposed panel from key stakeholders, such as the university, astronomers and federal partners. 

Chun said the university had acknowledged and apologized for its previous stewardship of Mauna Kea. 

“There’s room for improvement,” Chun said. “But we continue to make those efforts; what we’ve done in part is to refocus our efforts in strengthening our internal advisory structure.”

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