University of Hawaii officials are worried about the fate of astronomy on Mauna Kea if a proposal that could ultimately remove the UH’s role in managing the summit passes the Legislature.

House Bill 2024 calls for transferring the responsibility of the lands to a new governing body of mostly Native Hawaiians. The panel would be in charge of developing a plan on how to manage land use, recreational use, stewardship, education, research and the overall operation above the 6,500-foot mark of Mauna Kea.

Though the university’s Board of Regents approved its new management plan for Mauna Kea earlier this year, the bill would largely scrap that plan.

The Senate Higher Education Committee heard testimony Tuesday on the bill. Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who chairs the committee, said she expects the committee to vote on the measure Wednesday. She said she plans to pass the bill with amendments.

The bill would need to pass one more committee before going to the full Senate.

Hilo Bay with the majestic view of Mauna Kea with tiny dots on the summit, the observatories.
A bill that strips the University’s of Hawaii’s management authority of Mauna Kea is still moving forward in the Legislature. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

UH officials say they didn’t expect the bill to make it this far.

“The bill is currently crafted and projects an eventual return of the summit region to its natural state,” Greg Chun, executive director for UH Hilo’s Center for Maunakea Stewardship, said in an interview on Monday. “That means an end to astronomy with some undetermined future, and that’s a decision that has not been fully vetted in a conversation with all the people of Hawaii.”

Under a 65-year lease agreement, the university has managed most of the lands of the summit since 1968, but critics point to what they say is a long record of mismanagement of the mountain.

The university’s current lease runs until 2033. In the university’s management plan, the number of telescopes would be reduced to nine from 13 after 2033.

If HB 2024 becomes law, it would take three years to transfer management responsibilities from the university to the new governing group.

At Tuesday’s hearing, several astronomers and other supporters backed the university and want it to continue to manage Mauna Kea.

Hawaii island resident Katherine Roseguo testified in opposition of the bill, saying that “Hawaiian culture and astronomy can work together harmoniously.”

“It’s not desecration to use these instruments (telescopes) to find out more about ourselves,” she said.

Hilton Lewis, director of the W.M. Keck Observatory, suggested that the Legislature amend the bill to create a timeline that doesn’t interfere with leases, extend the transition period to the new governing authority from three to five years, require that the authority create a concrete financial plan, and assure Hawaii astronomy is represented in the panel’s decision making.

“HB 2024 has opened a conversation in our community about a positive way forward for the future of Maunakea,” Lewis said in written testimony. “Whichever path our elected officials choose for the governance and management of Maunakea, the Maunakea Observatories seek a community model of astronomy in which astronomy continues beyond 2033 inclusive of native Hawaiian perspectives and built on collaborative, mutually respectful relationships with the local community.”

Along with Native Hawaiians on the panel, the bill provides for the University of Hawaii president or his representative to be included in the group. The bill envisions two advisory groups of astronomers and Native Hawaiians to be included when the management panel makes decisions.

However, Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, who was part of the Mauna Kea working group created by House Speaker Scott Saiki, supported the bill and suggested the bill be amended to include the University of Hawaii Hilo chancellor as a member instead of the UH president.

Lawmakers are still weighing whether the Maunakea Observatories should be a member of the panel.

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