A Senate bill would challenge the scope of the authority’s jurisdiction over the dormant volcano.

The new authority that is due to assume oversight of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s largest mountain, after a five-year transition period may lose a key aspect of its control over the lands.

A law adopted last year established the Mauna Kea Stewardship Oversight Authority as “the principal authority” for the mountain, which is home to some of the world’s most powerful telescopes at its summit. The University of Hawaii will hand over control after the transition period ends in 2028.

The decision was applauded by Native Hawaiians and others who have accused the university of exploiting the mauna, which many consider sacred.

However, Senate Bill 81, introduced by Sen. Lorraine Inouye, would keep designated state conservation lands on Mauna Kea under the authority of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, even after the transition period.

Sign located along the Mauna Kea Access Road near the Saddle Road intersection in opposition to the TMT telescope.
Protests against the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope’s addition to Mauna Kea helped lead to the creation of the Mauna Kea Stewardship Oversight Authority. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Inouye said the language in the bill that established the authority is unclear, so SB 81 is needed to clarify that DLNR has ultimate responsibility over the conservation lands as directed in the Hawaii Revised Statutes.

Members of the panel objected to the proposed legislation, saying they’re still figuring out their relationship with other entities and this bill could undercut the authority’s role.

“My understanding is that we were an autonomous – supposed to be autonomous – group with full decision-making authority,” said John Komeiji, the authority’s chair. 

The authority’s members were appointed by then-Gov. David Ige in September and still require official nominations and Senate approval.

Gov. Josh Green said he plans to nominate the same people to the 11-member authority, and he doesn’t think the bill will clear the Legislature.

“I doubt that bill’s going to make its way to me,” he said Thursday during an interview with the Civil Beat editorial board.

SB 81 is scheduled for a decision Friday during a joint hearing by the Senate Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. If successful, the bill will cross over to the House.

Mauna Kea has been the center of protests by Native Hawaiians and others who objected to the UH’s management of the lands as it facilitated observatories with powerful telescopes atop a fragile ecosystem. UH has said it already had initiated reforms and plans to reduce the number of observatories.

The proposed addition of the massive Thirty Meter Telescope added further tension, with Native Hawaiian groups saying they felt unrepresented in deciding how to manage the mountain.

The authority was formed to mitigate these concerns, bringing together 11 voting members with a variety of backgrounds to oversee Mauna Kea lands. There’s also a nonvoting member.

The panel includes people with expertise in education, land management, business and finance, astronomy and Native Hawaiian cultural practices. It also by mandate includes the DLNR chair, a UH board of regents member and the Big Island mayor, or designees of those categories.

Except for the DLNR chair, most members of the panel appeared united in opposition to the bill, including Bonnie Irwin, the chancellor of UH Hilo, and Rich Matsuda, the chief of Operations and External Relations at the W. M. Keck Observatory.

During their February Board meeting on Zoom, Irwin, the authority’s sole nonvoting member, acknowledged the novel setup members had to work with.

“There is concern with having an entity that is doing DLNR kind of work outside of DLNR, and it’s not just whether we want to do something for astronomy, it’s even on the conservation side,” she said during the meeting. 

But she agreed the measure was premature.

“The scoping conversation of us versus DLNR is a really important one to devote serious time to, and we simply have not had that opportunity,” she said, as members Joshua Lanakila Manguil and Noe Noe Wong-Wilson nodded along on Zoom.

Komeiji urged the Legislature not to pass the bill, saying the authority is just starting to get its footing and needs more time before decisions on changes and clarifications are made. The five-year transition clock starts on July 1.

“This measure … could result in unintended consequences such as impairing the autonomy and independent judgment and independence of the Authority,” he said in written testimony during the bill’s first committee hearing last month.

The current task, he said later during an interview, is trying to hire an executive assistant.

The DLNR expressed concern that last year’s act removes Mauna Kea lands from conservation zoning. 

“The Department feels it is critical that Conservation District protections will remain in place,” DLNR Chair Dawn Chang said in written testimony. 

And with two telescopes being decommissioned right now – and more on the way – clear DLNR responsibility would make those processes more straightforward, she added. 

The DLNR declined to comment beyond its testimony. 

Inouye also expressed concern about the quality of land management. These conservation lands, she said, deserve to be protected by a well-equipped and knowledgeable organization like the DLNR. 

“You’re going to have the DLNR chair there as a representative, but everybody else is pretty much laypeople. So that’s a big concern,” she said.

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