Who should govern Maunakea?

  • Sens. Kai Kahele and Lorraine Inouye

Some lawmakers want to take the University of Hawaii out of the picture when it comes to managing Maunakea.

A bill introduced Wednesday would replace University of Hawaii at Hilo’s Office of Maunakea Management with a new entity, managed by a governor-appointed board. It also would limit the number of telescopes to nine by 2028.

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Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, D-Oahu, sponsored the legislation, which includes Hawaii Island Sens. Kai Kahele and Lorraine Inouye as co-sponsors. Kahele, who has become a vocal critic of the university, said he’s been assigned as the bill’s chairman, should it end up in a conference committee at the end of the session.

He said the bill isn’t perfect but he thinks the Legislature needs to have a debate over the mountain’s future.

“It’s time for the Legislature to get involved and show true leadership on Maunakea,” said Kahele, D-Hilo. “It’s desperately needed.”

UH, which holds a master lease for the Maunakea Science Reserve until 2033, formed OMKM in 2000 after a critical audit. The organization’s duties include protecting cultural and natural resources in the 11,288-acre reserve.

It is overseen by a director and board consisting of Hawaii Island residents nominated by the UH-Hilo chancellor and approved by the UH Board of Regents. The board is assisted by a Native Hawaiian advisory committee.

Critics say OMKM’s duties conflict with UH’s role in promoting astronomy on the mountain, which some Hawaiians consider sacred.

Those accusing UH of mismanagement include the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which filed a lawsuit late last year alleging a failure to protect ceded lands. UH responded by saying the suit ignores progress since OMKM’s formation, including the approval of a comprehensive management plan, creation of a ranger program and environmental studies.

UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the university remains committed to collaborative stewardship regarding the mountain.

“No matter what the future is, there’s a good foundation that we can continue to build on,” he said.

The bill isn’t winning support from some of UH’s critics, at least not yet.

Kealoha Pisciotta, a critic of the university who follows religious protocol on the mountain, said she has long advocated for a management authority independent of UH, but she can’t support the bill in its current form.

Her main concern is that it doesn’t include “rightholders and stakeholders,” such as Hawaiian cultural or religious practitioners, as members of the board. She said they shouldn’t just be advisers and that Maunakea needs to be addressed as a sacred place.

“The practitioners and the environmentalists need to participate in this fully,” Pisciotta said. “We’re not going to do things we don’t think are pono.”

The bill says appointed members would include the director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, and representatives of a statewide business organization, a Hawaii Island business organization and the East-West Center. Additionally, two members would be selected from nominees submitted by Native Hawaiian organizations, and one each appointed by leaders of the House and Senate.

The new entity would be responsible for all management duties, including oversight of commercial tours and road maintenance, and set rules for access.

Under the current draft, which hasn’t been scheduled for a committee hearing, visitors would be required to use a shuttle service to access the summit and pay a fee. Cultural practitioners would be exempt from the fee.

The university continues to face criticism for lacking access rules, particularly when the summit has gotten more popular with visitors and easier to access after improvements to the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road.

Meisenzahl said draft rules will go to the UH Board of Regents in a few months. He said that issue has been held up because of the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The $1.4 billion project has been appealed again to the state Supreme Court after the state Land Board approved another land use permit last year.

Pisciotta, one of the TMT appellants, said she supports another Maunakea bill introduced by Kahele that would require a forensic audit of telescope leases and other activities on the mountain. She said it’s something her group, Maunakea Anaina Hou, has requested for years.

Pisciotta wants the audit to see if UH is collecting the revenue it is supposed to get from leases, even if they are only $1, and tour groups.

“If they make money off ceded lands they have to account for it,” she said.

Meisenzahl said UH isn’t hiding anything.

Kahele said the idea for the audit came out of two meetings about Maunakea recently in Hilo. Several people who participated said he organized the gatherings, though Kahele downplayed his role in an interview.

“I bought the Starbucks,” he said.

Pisciotta said about 40 people participated in each session, with about half being petitioners in the recent TMT contested case. Some telescope supporters also participated, as well as other elected officials, she said.

Kahele said the purpose of the meetings, organized via invitation, was to find a consensus on issues affecting Maunakea. He said those attending agreed there has been mismanagement.

“I think the most important thing is we need to give back to the mountain first,” he said. “We need to heal Maunakea. We need to make sure that we are protecting her cultural and precious archaeological resources.”

Kahele said he wants to help find a balance between science and culture on the mountain. He said he also wants the telescopes to inspire keiki to become astronomers, calling them a “beacon.”

Asked if he supports TMT, Kahele pivoted to management issues. “I do not support the status quo today,” he said. “We need to address stewardship and what currently exists on Maunakea today.”

Kahele said the audit could extend to educational grants from TMT’s THINK fund.

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He previously oversaw the nonprofit Pa‘a Pono Milolii, which received an educational grant from the fund in 2015. Kahele said he stepped down from the organization.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.