The University of Hawaii is poised to lose its management authority of Mauna Kea in five years.

House and Senate lawmakers agreed Friday on a measure that would transfer responsibilities for overseeing the mountain’s summit and slopes from the university to a new governing agency after a five-year transition period.

The panel, dubbed the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority, would be responsible for creating land use and management policies during that time.

The Big Island mountain is home to some of the world’s most advanced telescopes, but it’s also considered sacred by many Native Hawaiians, setting up a conflict that led to protests in recent years against the construction of a new observatory.

Senator Donna Mercado Kim and left, Representative David Tarnas during a photo op after the conference committee vote on the stewardship of Mauna Kea.
Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, right, and Rep. David Tarnas, left, agreed on a measure that transfers management authority of Mauna Kea from the University of Hawaii to a new governing group. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The compromise reached Friday after lawmakers from the House and Senate met in conference committee was aimed at allowing astronomy to continue while giving Native Hawaiians more of a say.

The measure goes to the House and Senate for a final vote next week. If approved, it must still be signed by the governor.

In the latest draft of House Bill 2024, the university would continue to handle day-to-day management of the astronomy district during the five-year transition period. The university also would have a seat on the new 11-member panel.

Rep. David Tarnas, the House’s negotiator on the measure, said during the Friday meeting that the discussions of the bill were “challenging but important.”

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, the Senate’s negotiator, said the amendments reflect the importance of astronomy in educating students. She singled out $350,000 in funding for UH Hilo’s Imiloa Astronomy Center.

“We couldn’t please everybody,” Kim said Friday in an interview. “That’s what happens when you reach a compromise and a mutual agreement.”

University officials, who have expressed concern about the fate of astronomy on Mauna Kea, declined to comment, saying they are still reviewing the latest draft of the bill.

Underscoring the importance of the mountain to the scientific community, a UH report released earlier this week said the industry boosts the local economy.

Greg Chun, Executive Director of Mauna Kea Stewardship.
Greg Chun is the executive director of the UH Hilo Center for Maunakea Stewardship. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The astronomy industry employed some 1,313 Hawaii residents and had a total economic impact of $221 million in 2019, according to the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

With a 65-year lease agreement, the university has managed most of the lands on Mauna Kea since 1968.

But advocates have for years accused the university of not doing enough to care for the mountain.

Tensions escalated in 2019 over the planned construction 0f the Thirty Meter Telescope, which would be the world’s largest optical telescope. Anger over the issue led to months of protests on Mauna Kea in 2019.

The members of the new governing agency would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The members would represent the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the UH Board of Regents, the Hawaii island mayor and the observatories on Mauna Kea.

Other members include five people with expertise on land management, education, business and finance, as well as a cultural practitioner. The House speaker and Senate president will also select two additional members.

The controversial bill went through many changes since the start of the legislative session, mainly focused on how much control the university should maintain. In the end, UH will lose management authority after the five-year transition period.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said he’s satisfied with the bill. Last year, he called for a working group to develop a plan to restructure the management of Mauna Kea.

“I felt that our state was at a point where we needed to learn about how to resolve conflicts that arise between the environment, culture and economic advancement,” Saiki said in an interview. “This authority creates a model for us to resolve these conflicts.”

Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, who was on the Mauna Kea Working Group, said she feels the bill is complete and provides diverse community voices on the panel.

“It gives the community a broader voice on how the mauna should be managed,” she said. “The idea of being able to put an authority together that represents all sides of interest relating to Mauna Kea is a great first step.”

Hilton Lewis, director of the W.M. Keck Observatory, praised lawmakers for their work on the bill.

“If this bill is signed into law, we look forward to collaborating with the authority and participating to make it a success for all,” he said. “We are grateful to all parties for their ongoing efforts on the complex issues involved in the future governance and management of Maunakea.”

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