Ige unveils Mauna Kea plan

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While promising to protect the rights of the Thirty Meter Telescope to proceed with construction and opponents to peacefully protest, Gov. David Ige on Tuesday outlined his vision for better stewardship of Hawaii’s tallest and most sacred mountain.

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While promising to protect the rights of the Thirty Meter Telescope to proceed with construction and opponents to peacefully protest, Gov. David Ige on Tuesday outlined his vision for better stewardship of Hawaii’s tallest and most sacred mountain.

During a press conference in Honolulu, less than two months after protests brought work on the $1.4 billion project atop Mauna Kea to a standstill, Ige said Hawaii has, in many ways, failed the mountain.

“Whether you see it from a cultural perspective or from a natural resource perspective, we have not done right by a very special place, and we must act immediately to change that,” he said.

Ige said his administration is in the process of establishing a Mauna Kea Cultural Council to advise the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the state Land Board and his own office to ensure a better job is done.

The council’s tasks will include reviewing leases and lease renewals, proposing rules impacting the mountain, environmental impact statement preparation and cultural impact assessments, and decommissioning plans and execution.

The governor also spoke candidly about the University of Hawaii, calling on the institution to be “forthright and public in accepting its need to do a better job in the future.”

Ige’s lengthy list of requests to the university included returning 10,000 acres of Mauna Kea not needed for astronomy back to DLNR; a commitment to remove 25 percent of the mountain’s 13 telescopes by the time the TMT is complete; starting to decommission one telescope this year; restarting the environmental impact statement process for the lease extension request; and revisiting sublease contracts that allow existing telescopes to pay $1 a year in rent.

Ige also pushed for the university to formally and legally bind itself to its commitment that the TMT project site will be the last area on the mountain for a telescope, and to significantly limit noncultural access to the mountain.

“There is far too much routine access to this special place and it cannot continue to carry this burden,” he said, suggesting future access be handled through the Native Hawaiian community so visitors have a greater understanding and respect for its cultural significance.

University of Hawaii at Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney said the steps outlined by Ige are “a good thing for the mountain,” and that the university will follow the governor’s direction.

“I think he’s right that the university can and will do better,” Straney said.

Straney said he supports the governor’s request for a new EIS before an extension of the master lease, which expires in 2033.

“I think restarting the EIS process is wise,” he said.

He said the most difficult task for the university will be meeting Ige’s timetable for decommissioning telescopes.

“I think we will be challenged to achieve that,” Straney said.

Speaking by phone after Tuesday’s press conference, Ige said the management of Mauna Kea is a priority for his administration.

“I wouldn’t have gotten involved if I didn’t think it was important,” he said. “Obviously, a lot of the things are with the university, and we’re working to ensure that they can execute on their part. There are some actions that I will be taking with the Department of Land and Natural Resources to do a better job of being a better steward.”

Ige said his office has reached out to and met with nearly all parties, including project opponents and supporters, TMT, UH and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Straney said that in addition to his involvement in discussions with UH President David Lassner and the governor about improving the stewardship of Mauna Kea, he met with some of the protesters. The latter, he said, gave him a better understanding of their “sense of place” and connection to the mountain.

Asked whether he thinks the governor’s plan will enable work on the TMT to move forward, Straney said: “We’ll see.”

Construction of the telescope has been met with resistance from protesters who twice have staged roadblocks on Mauna Kea Access Road to prevent crews from proceeding with site clearing. TMT protesters, who call themselves protectors, say they are opposed to additional telescope construction on Mauna Kea, considered sacred by Native Hawaiians.

On April 2, Ige announced the nonprofit corporation behind the TMT agreed to his request for a halt of construction. The stand down came in the midst of the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo and five days after law enforcement officials arrested 31 people who participated in an ongoing protest of the project.

Ige said Tuesday he intends to protect and enforce TMT’s right to proceed with construction as well as the right of project opponents to peacefully protest.

Ultimately, he thinks science and culture can and should co-exist on the mountaintop.

“What has instead happened is that science has received most of the attention and it has gotten way ahead of culture in our work on the mountain,” he said. “The proper balance has been lost.”

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“Mauna Kea is a special place, and we need to treat it as a special place.”

Email Chris D’Angelo at cdangelo@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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