A legislative decision to create an independent authority to manage Mauna Kea has cast uncertainty over the future of astronomy on the mountain, which has been the site of important scientific discoveries but also protests that halted the construction of the world’s largest optical telescope.

The bill, which would end the University of Hawaii’s stewardship of the state’s tallest peak after a five-year transition period, was a compromise that included a promise to keep supporting astronomy as a state policy.

Representatives of observatories with telescopes on the summit promised to cooperate with the new authority, which was aimed at giving Native Hawaiians more of a voice in decisions about the use of what many consider sacred land.

But critics warned that there were no guarantees, and the university expressed concern about a lack of financial and operational details in the final language of the legislation, which still needs to be signed by the governor.

TMT Mauna Kea demonstrators hold their hands up and gesture the Mauna Kea hand symbol.
A measure to end UH’s authority over Mauna Kea still needs to be approved by the governor. It is seen as a victory for Native Hawaiian groups that sought more say in the volcano’s management. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

New Management

UH President David Lassner said the university would immediately pause all sublease negotiations with the observatories as well as efforts to seek a new master lease and any additional plans to decommission telescopes.

However, he said the university didn’t plan to request a veto and would work to help the new authority succeed if it is established.

“The university will engage as positively and collaboratively as possible to create a ‘global model of harmonious and inspirational stewardship that is befitting of Maunakea’ as called for by the Board of Regents,” Lassner said in a statement.

The adoption of House Bill 2024 on Tuesday came after years of calls for a new management structure amid criticism that the university had allowed the Big Island volcano to be exploited.

Protests led by Native Hawaiian groups at Mauna Kea in 2015 and 2019 and court challenges halted the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, which would be the world’s largest optical telescope.

The Hawaii Supreme Court in 2018 cleared the way for construction to resume, but ongoing protests and a need for more funding have kept the bulldozers at bay.

The bill didn’t mention the TMT, although it stipulated that all leases under UH would transfer to the new authority. TMT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said it was too early to comment on potential impacts since the bill had not been signed into law.

Financial Concerns

The university, which managed Mauna Kea under a 65-year state lease that is due to expire in 2033, has acknowledged past problems but insisted it has taken steps to improve the situation.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources parroted the university’s concerns on Thursday.

It singled out a concern that a lack of sustainable financing may lead to commercial tourism and difficulty maintaining observatories. The bill would require the authority to create its own financial plan.

“The department believes that while well-intentioned, this bill is based on a misguided assumption that UH has not managed Mauna Kea well,” DLNR Chair Suzanne Case said in a statement.

“Mauna Kea is tightly managed as a clean astronomy zone at the summit surrounded by 10,000 acres of well protected natural and cultural resources,” she said. “Requiring the authority to be financially self-sustaining would lead to pressures to open conservation lands to commercial tourism.”

While Gov. David Ige has not said whether he will sign the bill, he said he supports the “notion of mutual stewardship.”

Ige said during a press conference Thursday that DLNR raised valid questions about the bill and he plans to look the measure over for any potential constitutional issues.

Senate President Ron Kouchi said he had not polled lawmakers on the likelihood of an override if the governor vetoes the bill. However, he said the Senate may convene a special session if that happens.

The final version of the bill calls for an 11-member panel, dubbed the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority, to assume responsibility for the mountain after the transition period, which would begin on July 1, 2023.

‘Mutual Stewardship’

In the meantime, the authority would create new land-use policies while the university continues the day-to-day management. If the bill becomes law, the members of the new governing agency would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

The panel would include representatives from DLNR, the UH Board of Regents, the Big Island mayor, the current observatories as well as experts and Native Hawaiians. The House speaker and Senate president would select two additional members, and the UH Hilo chancellor would serve as a nonvoting member.

There are 13 telescopes on the mountain, and the university already had announced plans to decommission two of them as part of their plan that seeks to do a better job at managing the mauna.

The Maunakea Observatories promised to work with the authority. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy also endorsed the future management of Mauna Kea.

Rich Matsuda, a spokesman for the W.M. Keck Observatory, said the bill creates a “new era” and clears a path to healing divisions over the issue.

Matsuda noted the goal wasn’t to end astronomy on the mountain but acknowledged risks given the limited time to renew the leases.

“It’s really about everyone who cares about Mauna Kea from whatever perspective they hold,” Matsuda said.

Matsuda also gave the university credit for managing the mountain for all these years.

Photographer works near the Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea. 9 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
There are currently 13 telescopes on Mauna Kea. Two telescopes are slated to be decommissioned. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The new authority would get all the powers of the Board of Land and Natural Resources and the state Land Use Commission to approve new leases, permits and other land use authorizations after five years.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who chairs the Senate Water and Land Committee, said there’s no assurance that the authority will guarantee new leases to the current observatories and TMT.

“There will be too much politics in the new approval process,” Inouye said during a speech on the Senate floor, adding that the chances of TMT giving up on the site are high.

But it also isn’t guaranteed that the BLNR would approve the university’s master lease after 2033.

Once the authority is created, it would set limits on the number of observatories on Mauna Kea. That means it would be able to say no more than five telescopes or none at all.

It’s largely up to the authority to adopt elements from the university’s management plan of Mauna Kea, which was approved by the Board of Regents in January. The plan would limit the number of telescopes on Mauna Kea to no more than nine after 2033.

‘A Policy Of The State’

However, the measure makes astronomy a policy of the state, in essence barring the authority from eliminating telescopes altogether. The new authority will also be tasked with educating Hawaii students about astronomy.

Lawmakers appropriated $350,000 for UH Hilo’s Imiloa Astronomy Center, where the new authority will operate.

Another key point was the time allotted for using the telescopes. Viewing time currently varies, with some observatories providing 10% to 15% per year to the UH Institute of Astronomy.

The bill would require at least 7% of viewing time for UH, and for the university to prioritize usage for students.

While the university has improved its management practices over the past two decades, critics continue to point to a 1998 state audit finding that observatories had damaged a historical site and left trash and old equipment on the mountain. Also, a history of chemical waste spills was documented on the mountain.

Lassner said in his statement that the university has improved its efforts to care for the mountain by updating its management plan, assuring public safety, creating the UH Hilo Office of Maunakea Management, working to remove invasive species and more.

“What saddens me most is not the creation of a new authority but that a completely false narrative that UH is mismanaging Maunakea drove this legislation,” Lassner said. “I have personally acknowledged and apologized publicly on multiple occasions for UH mismanagement of Mauna Kea in the previous century.”

Lassner added that the university will share its management plans and other documents with the new authority.

UH President David Lassner said the university will work with the new authority if the bill becomes law. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2018

A Seat At The Table

The original proposal had four seats for Native Hawaiians. Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, who was part of the Mauna Kea Working Group created by House Speaker Scott Saiki last year, said the legislation was an important step toward self-determination.

“Any time the door is open for Hawaiians to have seats at the decision-making table, that is a good thing for us,” she said. “And now it’s our job to make sure we put the right people in those seats so that we can keep moving forward.”

“The bottom line is the group does not call for the immediate end of astronomy, which is the language that is being used by some opponents, but we are asking that people who regularly access the mountain are trained and educated on the importance of the mountain to us Native Hawaiians, our cultural beliefs and the environment,” she added.

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