Hawaiians, astronomers, UH oppose bill to create Maunakea management authority

  • Kai Kahele
  • David Lassner
  • Doug Simons
  • Kealoha Pisciotta

Some changes are planned for a bill creating a new management authority for Maunakea, but the legislation is still likely to face resistance from astronomers and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners alike.

State Sen. Kai Kahele, one of the co-sponsors of Senate Bill 3090, said the new proposal would require two cultural experts and an astronomer to sit on the authority’s board, in addition to requiring four of the seven seats be filled by Hawaii Island residents.

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People on both sides of the debate over future telescope development on the mountain criticized the initial proposal for lacking those positions and appearing too Oahu-centric. The bill was panned almost universally by the University of Hawaii, cultural practitioners and astronomers during a hearing earlier this week.

The bill cleared the Senate Higher Education and Water and Land committees on Wednesday.

Criticism of the bill goes beyond board composition.

Kealoha Pisciotta, who is involved in the appeal of the Thirty Meter Telescope land use permit, said she wants a new management authority but is against this bill.

She said the Legislature should wait for the state Supreme Court to rule on issues like TMT and build community support before proposing changes.

“This is not really helping,” Pisciotta said. “It’s not something supported by a broader community.”

Doug Simons, director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, said the observatories remain open to making changes about management, but he doesn’t think it’s necessary to start from scratch.

“Why not keep the building blocks and snap them into a different shape?” he said. “You don’t have to throw everything out, necessarily.”

Kahele, D-Hilo, said the new proposal still requires the board members, who would be appointed by the governor, to receive a salary, but there no longer would be an executive director.

That would be a major change from the existing management structure under UH-Hilo’s Office of Maunakea Management. It includes a director and volunteer board, whose members must be residents of the island and approved by the UH Board of Regents. The board also is advised by a Native Hawaiian cultural committee.

“We need full-time, paid board members who work five days a week and be subject matter experts in their field of study,” Kahele said. “We don’t want them to rely on an executive director. We want them to work and work hard and solve problems on Maunakea.”

Kahele held three meetings with Pisciotta, other cultural practitioners on the mountain, as well as some supporters of the telescopes, before the legislative session. Pisciotta said the consensus was then not to move forward on a management bill.

“We don’t have enough time to build the kind of consensus that needs to be built,” she said.

The bill comes as UH is preparing an environmental impact statement for a new master lease proposal (the existing agreement ends in 2033) and public hearings on proposed administrative rules.

Citing protests against TMT construction and lawsuits, Kahele said he thinks it’s time for the Legislature to act and that he wants to restore “trust and confidence in the system.”

“There is an overwhelming sense that we are at a crossroads on Maunakea today,” Kahele said. “There’s a sense of urgency on behalf of the Legislature that we need to take a more proactive role on Maunakea. … We’re proposing a different path forward.”

In written testimony, UH President David Lassner noted that a 2014 audit found that “UH has developed several management plans that provide a comprehensive framework for managing and protecting Maunakea while balancing the competing interests of culture, conservation, scientific research and recreation.”

“Fundamentally, we believe this bill is based on a premise that is not correct, that the current management structure has failed and must be completely replaced,” he said.

Lassner said UH is willing to consider other management models, but that the bill would result in a “dramatic increase in the cost of management,” could result in long-term loss of astronomy facilities and lacks a clear commitment to the coexistence of astronomy and culture.

Simons, who also sits on the OMKM board, said he thinks a lot of the work around environmental and cultural preservation gets overlooked. He cited studies on the wekiu bug, climatology and erosion in particular.

“I’m still amazed that on this tract of land on Maunakea we understand the 3-D position of every piece of cinder, plus or minus a centimeter,” he said. “You never hear about that kind of work.”

The bill would limit the number of telescopes to nine, down from the current 13, and would prohibit any increase in telescope footprint as of 2031. It also would require a fee to be paid for access, unless someone is going for cultural purposes.

The Conservation District use permit for TMT also would require removal of three telescopes as soon as reasonably possible and two additional telescopes by 2033. The permit prevents those sites from being reused.

Maunakea Observatories, a hui of telescopes on the mountain, said in testimony that the bill adds even more uncertainty to the future of astronomy.

“The Maunakea Observatories crucially need visible stability in the future of Maunakea astronomy,” the group wrote. “Our funders, which are mostly international federal agencies, need to be reassured that Hawaii astronomy is supported by the state and has a bright future in the 21st century.”

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, D-Oahu, introduced the legislation. Kahele said he’s been assigned as the bill’s chairman if it ends up in conference committee.

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Additionally, Mayor Harry Kim is pursuing a proposal for a new management structure for the mountain, which he said will establish it as a monument of global significance, while highlighting Hawaiians’ connection to the mountain, which some consider sacred.

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