Mauna Kea is getting new management, and it may not be as friendly to astronomy interests as its former overseers.

The new panel that will take over stewardship of Hawaii’s tallest mountain from the University of Hawaii is shaping up to include several prominent Native Hawaiians, including leaders of the 2019 protests that halted the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The cultural experts will have voting seats on the governing body, instead of merely advising the summit’s managers as they do now. That increases the prospects for new limits on scientific activity on the 13,803-foot mountain, which many Native Hawaiians consider sacred, experts said.

While the astronomy industry is one of the state’s main economic drivers, critics believe the summit has been overdeveloped and culturally and environmentally exploited to harmful effect. Members of the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority will need to balance those concerns regardless of past political activity.

TMT Demonstrators walk up Mauna Kea Access Road with flag in foreground.
The new authority will make decisions about managing the tallest mountain in the state. Those will include the future of Thirty Meter Telescope, which drew protests that blocked its construction in 2019. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Finding A Balance

The law passed earlier this year establishing the 11-member panel says the mountain must be protected for future generations, but it also declared astronomy as a state policy that helps create jobs.

“What’s important to me is that the mauna is going to be taken care of in a different way,” said Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, who was arrested in 2019 for blocking a key access road during the 2019 Mauna Kea protests.

She was among eight people appointed to be on the panel by Gov. David Ige earlier this month. They must still be approved by the state Senate. Ige and Senate leaders are discussing whether to call a special session to approve the appointees, according to the governor’s office. Each member will serve no more than three, three-year terms.

The three other panel members will be Department of Land and Natural Resources Chair Suzanne Case, UH board of regents member Eugene Ball III and Douglass Shipman Adams, who will represent the Hawaii island mayor’s office.

The decision to transfer authority from UH came after years of environmental and cultural concerns and protests.

The university was heavily criticized for poor management of the mountain after a 1998 state audit found that observatories left trash and old equipment and damaged historical sites. Facilities on the mountain also have a history of chemical and waste spills that include up to 1,000 gallons of sewage overflowing in 2008.

UH, which opposed the legislation to remove its authority over Mauna Kea saying it would mean an end to astronomy in Hawaii, insisted that it already has taken steps to improve the situation, including a new master plan to decommission some of the telescopes and set a limit for the number of observatories operating on the summit.

“There’s huge uncertainty, but I don’t think it’s because of the membership. It’s because it’s a new way of looking at management stewardship.” — Observatory scientist John O’Meara

The TMT International Observatory, the nonprofit organization behind the TMT, also promised at the time that the facility housing the world’s largest optical telescope would be zero-waste with minimal impact on the mountain.

UH President David Lassner has since said the university will collaborate with the new authority and hand over relevant documents. UH Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin also will be a nonvoting member.

The panel will have jurisdiction over all state-leased lands on Mauna Kea, including the astronomy precinct, giving it decision-making power over land-use and management policies as well as lease negotiations for telescopes. It will assume complete responsibility after a five-year transition period.

A Seat At The Table

The summit has 13 telescopes built since the late 1960s, although UH adopted a master plan earlier this year aimed at decommissioning some of them and setting a limit of nine operating astronomy facilities by 2033. The new panel will have the final say on how many telescopes are allowed on the mountain.

It also will eventually face a decision about the future of the $2.65 billion TMT, although the project is currently stalled. The National Science Foundation is conducting an environmental study for both Mauna Kea and a possible alternate site in Spain’s Canary Islands as part of the process to receive federal funding for the TMT.

A Civil Beat/HNN poll in June indicated declining support for the project among Native Hawaiians. While a majority of overall respondents said they support the project, 57% of those who identified as Native Hawaiians opposed it, up from 48% who expressed that opinion in 2019.

9 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
There are currently 13 telescopes on Mauna Kea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Brialyn Kauionalani Onodera, who represented astronomy interests on the legislative Mauna Kea working group, said she’s confident in the group’s ability to make fair decisions given each panelist’s expertise.

“Everybody who is nominated to this group obviously cares a lot about Mauna Kea,” said Onodera, an engineer at the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope on Maui. “As long as they care that the outcome is something beneficial for the people of Hawaii, we can recognize that astronomy is an important industry in Hawaii.”

A study by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization found that the astronomy industry supports 1,313 jobs and had a total economic impact of $221 million on the state in 2019.

Native Hawaiian community advocate Healani Sonoda-Pale said she’s uncertain how the members will make decisions regarding astronomy. But she hopes the majority opposes the TMT’s construction.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” Sonoda-Pale said. “What it looks like now, it’s still unclear where most of the members stand on TMT.”

Six of the eight appointees are Native Hawaiian, including Wong-Wilson, Gary Kalehua Krug, Kamanamaikalani Beamer, Pomaikai Bertelmann, Joshua Lanakila Mangauil and Paul Horner. The other two members are Rich Matsuda and John Komeiji.

Between them, they have expertise in Hawaii land management, public education, astronomy, business and finance, and Indigenous traditional practices and customs.

Here’s a look at how they see their future roles.

Noe Noe Wong-Wilson

Wong-Wilson, who also worked in the Mauna Kea working group, was a leader during the 2019 protests against the TMT and was among several people arrested for refusing to move from spots blocking the access road.

Wong-Wilson said she can work with people who have a range of views using her experience from the working group, which also had astronomy representatives.

Noe Noe Wong-Wilson was one of the kupuna arrested on Mauna Kea.
Noe Noe Wong-Wilson was one of the kupuna arrested on Mauna Kea. Now she will have a say in how it is managed. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“It’s about speaking calmly and being thoughtful,” she said, adding that she is an educator and has experience organizing educational conferences and cultural events. “I have great attention to detail and the ability to gather large amounts of information and put them together in a concise way.”

Wong-Wilson said she hasn’t changed her opposition to the TMT and supports putting a limit on the observatories operating on the mauna, but it’s too early to say how many that should be since the panel is still in the beginning stages.

“It’s like predicting the future,” she said, adding that the beginning stage is the board setting their rules on how they will operate. “I’m not in any position to predict how it will come out in the end.”

Joshua Lanakila Mangauil

Manguail, a Native Hawaiian practitioner, was also on the Mauna Kea working group and among the leaders of the 2019 protest. He was arrested in 2015 while protesting the construction of the Maui solar telescope.

“I bring a young perspective that is rooted in our foundation of who we are as a people, our culture, our heritage, our science … also our engagement, understanding and responsibility to the environment,” Mangauil said.

Mangauil said he understands the concerns about the future of astronomy in Hawaii but noted that the main job is to take care of the mountain.

“For myself personally, as one who doesn’t support the building of any type of large construction projects on the mountain, is simply based on the fact that this is conservation land,” he said.

He said it would be up to the entire board to make a decision when it comes to limiting the number of telescopes on Mauna Kea.

TMT protester Lanakila Manguil.
Joshua Lanakila Mangauil, who was a part of the Mauna Kea working group. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“The mountain is the primary,” he said. “Therefore, if astronomy is not behaving or being a good guest on the mountain, that’s going to be on them. People are just so limited in discussing Mauna Kea and astronomy, but we’re talking about the overall management of Mauna Kea.”

Gary Kalehua Krug

Krug was selected for his expertise in education. He’s the principal of Ka Waihona o Ka Naauao, a Hawaiian charter school. He’s also a musician and traditional tattoo artist.

Krug said he’s excited to begin work on the panel if confirmed by the Senate.

“I’m situated in the education seat,” he said. “That seat is a really important vantage point by which we can talk more about this case. There are multiple lessons that can be learned from this space and converse about the value of education, relationship and behaviors that we enact when we make decisions on land.”

He has opposed TMT, but said his work taught him to listen to both sides and weigh various options, especially when discussing land use decisions.

“Through the conversation, we’re going to get to a good place,” he said, adding that it’s important to look at ideologies, history, culture, behaviors and land use. “I think it’s a really good time to build a decision-making fulcrum that has a more robust foundation and includes a diverse repository of information when we decide on how to use the land.”

Kamanamaikalani Beamer

Beamer, a professor at the Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH Manoa, was selected for his expertise in land resource management. He has researched governance, land tenure and Hawaiian resource management. He also served on the state Commission for Water Resources.

Beamer has in the past expressed his opposition to TMT in a YouTube video after the Hawaii Supreme Court cleared the way for construction in 2018.

“This will be a pivotal time for all of us, but one thing I’m certain of is that my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren don’t need to see the peak of Mauna Kea developed,” he said in the video. “There’s enough telescopes up there. There’s more than enough.”

Beamer didn’t respond to requests for an interview.

Pomaikai Bertelmann

Bertelmann was selected for her background as a lineal descendant of a Native Hawaiian practitioner associated with Mauna Kea.

Born and raised on Hawaii island, she’s been a member of the Polynesian Voyaging society since 2000. She’s also a middle school instructor at the Kanu o Ka Aina Charter School.

Bertelmann didn’t respond to requests for an interview. It’s unclear what her opinion is about TMT and the 13 telescopes on the mountain.

Paul Horner

Paul Horner, a Native Hawaiian, was selected from a shortlist of three people from the Senate. He is the president and CEO of Na Leo TV and has experience managing hotels on Lanai and the Big Island.

Horner said his goal is to balance culture, business and science. When it comes to the TMT issue, Horner said he’s “not sold one way or the other” but noted that if TMT were built, he wouldn’t want any more telescopes on the mountain.

“I’m pretty much neutral because of what’s happened in the past,” Horner said. “There’s a lot of damage done to the mauna. We can’t be held back one way or the other, but we have to find common ground. I think there is a way to find common ground and build the Thirty Meter Telescope, but it depends on the group.”

John Komeiji

John Komeiji, former general counsel and Vice President of the Kamehameha Schools.
John Komeiji, former general counsel and Vice President of the Kamehameha Schools. Courtesy: John Komeiji/2018

Komeiji, former general counsel and vice president for Kamehameha Schools and general manager of Hawaiian Telcom, was selected because of his expertise in business and finance. In addition, he said he brings common sense and the ability to work with people on the panel.

“But the most important thing I bring is a true love for Hawaii,” Komeiji said. “A sense of community is very, very important to me and Mauna Kea is one aspect of that.”

He said he would need to listen from all sides regarding TMT, including conservation advocates, people who say astronomy benefits the economy and the need to respect Native Hawaiian culture and values.

“What I intend to do is listen to everyone and try to emphasize on all sides and come to some conclusion down the road,” Komeiji said.

Rich Matsuda

Rich Matsuda, spokesman for the W.M. Keck Observatories.
Rich Matsuda, spokesman for the W.M. Keck Observatories. Courtesy: W.M Keck Observatories

Rich Matsuda, spokesman for the W.M Keck Observatory that operates near the summit, is the only appointee who would represent the astronomy community. He was also one of the members of the Mauna Kea working group.

He said his initial reaction when the governor announced his name was that there’s a lot of work ahead, but he is looking forward to it.

“This is going to be a lot of kuleana,” Matsuda said. “The decisions we make for Mauna Kea are really important to everyone, the astronomy community and the broader community.”

Matsuda worked in astronomy on Mauna Kea for 28 years. Born and raised in the state, Matsuda said he brings common values and appreciation for Hawaii as well as an ability to build respectful relationships and create collaborative conditions.

“We all care about Mauna Kea,” he said. “It might be from different perspectives, but it’s really about putting the mauna first and figuring out how we can protect and nurture that space.”

W.M. Keck Observatory chief scientist John O’Meara expressed optimism that the panel can balance various opinions on how to care for the mountain.

“There’s huge uncertainty, but I don’t think it’s because of the membership,” O’Meara said. “It’s because it’s a new way of looking at management stewardship.”

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