Peter Apo: It Will Take Extraordinary Leadership To Resolve Our Differences Over Mauna Kea - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Peter Apo

Peter Apo is a former state legislator, Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee, and state and county government administrator. He is president of the Peter Apo Company, a Hawaiian cultural consulting service. He volunteers to serve on numerous community-based boards and commissions. Peter also pursues a serious avocation as a singer-

The Hawaii Legislature and the National Science Foundation are moving forward with separately managed initiatives that I expect will trigger a new round of political discourse on Mauna Kea.

Opinion article badge

Essentially, although separately generated, I anticipate both to have the effect of hitting the reset button on how the currently contentious dialogue might be more effectively framed to produce the necessary compromises for a win-win outcome.

The first new initiative is the establishment of a new management structure passed by the Legislature earlier this year. The Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority was recently signed into law by Governor David Ige.

The new authority will eventually replace the current Office of Mauna Kea Management in managing the 525 acres of summit lands referred to as the Mauna Kea Science Reserve. The reserve has grown to a complex of 12 telescopes now occupying the summit lands.

The gubernatorial and legislative appointment process to seat 11 board members from various stakeholder sectors, now under way, may have to bridge past the November elections so an extended time frame can accommodate the transition to a new governor, and perhaps a change in legislative leadership will keep the process open until June 30, 2028.

It’s important to note the make-up of the new authority, once operational, significantly diminishes the level of authority now held by the University of Hawaii. Meanwhile, until the appointment process is complete, the current management structure will continue to govern.

The second initiative is a surprise announcement by the National Science Foundation which has launched a full environmental review relating specifically to the issue of the Thirty Meter Telescope. The review has a two-year time frame.

The NSF is aggressively pursuing public input as a prerequisite to considering allotting millions of dollars in funding for the $2.65 billion TMT project. The NSF website call for testimony reads as follows:

“NSF is considering a potential future investment in the construction and operations of an Extremely Large Telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, the Thirty Meter Telescope. NSF understands that the possible construction of this telescope on Maunakea, Hawai‘i Island, Hawaii, is a sensitive issue that requires extensive engagement and understanding of various viewpoints.” You can submit comments here.

In my opinion, there are four pieces to this pie.

The first piece is the fact that after years of an extraordinarily rigorous Board of Land and Natural Resources approval process the board approved construction of the $1.4 billion TMT. The construction permit was then challenged and it took another several months for a protracted legal battle challenging the award.

FILE - Telescopes are seen on the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii's Big Island, on Aug. 31, 2015. The National Science Foundation said Tuesday, July 19, 2022, that it plans to conduct a study to evaluate the environmental effects of building the Thirty Meter Telescope, one of the world's largest optical telescopes, on sites selected on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and Spain's Canary Islands. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, File)
There are already a dozen telescopes on Mauna Kea but some in the Native Hawaiian community say no more. AP Photo/Caleb Jones/2015

In 2017 a 4-1 ruling by the Hawaii Supreme Court gave final approval to construct the TMT. Yet, even with the 2017 ruling in place for the past five years the rule of law has yet to prevail.

The second piece is the 525-acre Mauna Kea Science Reserve ensconced on the summit which, over the years, has now grown to a complex of 12 telescopes. Half of them are over 10 stories high. The proposal to add an 18-story Thirty Meter Telescope lit a public policy fire that continues to burn without any resolution in sight.

A third piece links a range of issues relating to the overall management of the entire 13,803-foot mountain. Mauna Kea rises vertically through eight climatic zones from tropical sea to snow-capped summit. The management challenge includes a very complex matrix of environmental, cultural, climate, safety, security, access and a host of other issues.

It has been a difficult and sometimes thankless navigation over the years for those management teams who are constantly subjected to sometimes vociferous public criticism from various stakeholders. No doubt, the new Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority will have its hands full.

So far, it seems clear from the attempts to seek compromise in the case of the TMT, the claim of “sacred” translates into no discussion.

The fourth piece is the dozens of free-ranging voices from the Hawaiian community for whom the Mauna Kea issue has served as a slingshot to express decades of frustration relating to the controversial annexation of the Hawaiian Kingdom to the United States. For these folk Mauna Kea serves as an effective global bulletin board to air other issues not necessarily related to the mountain.

However meritorious the NSF and Mauna Kea Stewardship Authority initiatives might seem in re-energizing the discussion, I believe both will likely encounter the same basic stop signs when seeking compromise to build the TMT.

Hawaiians who oppose the TMT frame their objections, as I understand it, as a violation of a religious-based belief they refer to as Mauna a Wakea which lays claim to the entire mountain as being sacred. Even the air column above the mountain is designated as holy.

So far, it seems clear from the attempts to seek compromise in the case of the TMT that the claim of “sacred” translates into no discussion. TMT opposition leaders have made it clear that compromise is not possible.

In the absence of the ancient priesthood of the Hawaiian Kingdom, who used to rule on such matters, there does not exist any religious or political body with the authority to adjudicate Hawaiian cultural claims of sacredness or cultural injury. If this condition of no discussion prevails there can be no quid pro quo and the issue is rendered non-transactional.

I cling to a cautious optimism that the extraordinary leadership required from all parties to successfully navigate a happy ending for all will surface.

As a Native Hawaiian I continue to fervently hope that our ancestral voices will find a way to speak to us and guide us forward with their ageless wisdom. Hawai’i loa ku like kakou — all Hawai’i stand together.

Read this next:

Danny De Gracia: Talk To Your Kids About Current Events — No Matter How Grim

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.


About the Author

Peter Apo

Peter Apo is a former state legislator, Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee, and state and county government administrator. He is president of the Peter Apo Company, a Hawaiian cultural consulting service. He volunteers to serve on numerous community-based boards and commissions. Peter also pursues a serious avocation as a singer-

Latest Comments (0)

What does a ʻcompromiseʻ look like to Peter Apo? Either the TMT is built on Mauna Kea or it is not.

rdebby · 5 months ago

When someone says "This is sacred!" and "We will not compromise!" -- believe them. They have excluded themselves from further dialog. The rest of us should feel free to move forward without further delay. When a decade of environmental impact analyses, permits for construction, permits to proceed, contested case challenges and lawsuits have resulted in a final ruling by the Supreme Court that the project can proceed, then we should confidently follow the rule of law. If a bully, regardless of age, tries to seize control by blockading a public road and implicitly threatens violence against anyone trying to pass through, that bully should be arrested, forcibly removed, held without bail if recently arrested on the same charge, and sentenced to prison without the charges being charitably dismissed.If one family member repeatedly violates house rules, demands their own way, and throws tantrums disrupting family peace and stability; the way to deal with them is first with hugs and soothing calm talk assuring love and respect. But then when hateful language and disruptive behavior continue, the offender must be sent to timeout until they are able to return in peace and aloha.

KennethConklin · 5 months ago

Very well written, thank you. As a 36 year kamaaina who taught in the public school system for 18 years I personally witnessed the programs put on for our keiki by the Astronomy community over the years. They were the most exciting and stimulating programs I saw in our schools, very special days for our keiki. I believe the Ancestors would approve as the Hawaiian culture has always included innovation and openness to new learning as well as a reverence for the stars and what we can learn from them. I also believe that ALL of the aina is sacred and meant to be used for the things that can further the knowledge and reverence of our planet and universe. Thank you

Midwife1 · 5 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.