UH outlines Mauna Kea plan

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Following Gov. David Ige’s lead, the University of Hawaii on Monday outlined its plan for improving stewardship of Mauna Kea that includes a commitment to reduce the number of observatories by the time the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope is complete.

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Following Gov. David Ige’s lead, the University of Hawaii on Monday outlined its plan for improving stewardship of Mauna Kea that includes a commitment to reduce the number of observatories by the time the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope is complete.

UH President David Lassner and UH-Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney issued a joint statement, in which they offered an apology and announced plans to meet with state officials this week to discuss the removal of three telescopes on the mountain within the next decade.

“We accept that the university has not yet met all of our obligations to the mountain or the expectations of the community,” they said. “For that, we apologize and lay out this outline of an action plan for improving our stewardship.”

Reducing astronomy’s footprint was one of the 10 requests Ige made of the university last week while addressing the standoff between TMT and protesters, who object to development on a mountain that Native Hawaiians consider sacred.

Lassner and Straney also made commitments to address other issues Ige identified, including managing non-cultural access to the mountain, improving cultural training and education, and seeking more financial commitments from observatories, in addition to other steps.

Open houses seeking input on managing mountain access will start this month. Draft rules are planned to be proposed by October.

Straney told the Tribune-Herald that “casual visitor” access to Mauna Kea has increased significantly and how to reduce the impact of that on the mountain will require a lot of public discussion.

The Office of Mauna Kea Management, which operates under UH-Hilo, installed a traffic counter last year. From November through April 15, 29,500 vehicles accessed the summit, said Stephanie Nagata, OMKM director.

As many as 300,000 people are estimated to stop at the Mauna Kea visitor center at 9,000 feet each year.

“Mauna Kea has become a destination for people not only in the state but out of state,” Straney said, adding that cultural access will not be restricted.

Regarding removal of telescopes, he said the university, which subleases land on the mountain to observatories, is working to identify another two that would be decommissioned by the time TMT is operational, possibly as early as 2024.

Last week, the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory announced it will end operations in September. It previously planned to shut down in 2016.

Straney said it’s too early to identify what other telescopes are being considered for early decommissioning. But he said likely candidates could be telescopes with limited funding.

“What happened with CSO was their funding agency ended the program,” he said. “The same type of dynamic might be present on other telescopes.”

Straney said an announcement could be made regarding which telescopes will be removed as early as July. There are 13 telescopes on the mountain.

He said it takes about two years to remove a telescope, so he thinks there is a large enough window to get the work done by the time TMT is complete. A challenge will be managing construction and demolition traffic, Straney said.

The university went beyond Ige’s requests by also offering increased support for Native Hawaiian students who want to pursue scientific fields.

Ige requested TMT increase its support for Hawaiian students. A TMT spokeswoman said the observatory also will follow that request, and that an announcement on that will made shortly.

Straney said the university’s support will include additional scholarships, possibly at the graduate level.

“Scholarships that would pay their way, I think, would be really important to help increase the number of Native Hawaiians with doctorates who we can hire back to teach the next generation,” he said. “I look forward to making those announcements.”

UH also plans to increase outreach and collaboration with schools on the Big Island, Straney said.

“What I envision is that education classes could link professional astronomers on one hand with school classes on the other,” he said. “Students could decide on a project that the professor performs and work on the data together.”

Additionally, UH plans to restart the environmental review process for its master lease renewal request to include a cultural impact analysis. The lease is needed for observatories to operate beyond 2033.

UH says it will reduce the length of a new lease down from 65 years, though a new lease timeline has not been identified.

The university also reiterated its plan to make the TMT site the last new observatory location, and said it will return parts of the 11,288-acre Mauna Kea Science Reserve not needed for astronomy back to DLNR and seek additional payments from observatories to improve management of the mountain.

Currently, the telescopes pay about $5 million a year to maintain and plow the access road, haul water up the mountain, and other services, Straney said.

Ige asked that existing subleases be revisited to increase the lease rent, which is now $1 a year. TMT, which has not announced when it will resume construction, will pay as much as $1 million a year when operational.

Straney said a new master lease will require telescopes to make substantial lease payments, but it might not be possible to change the existing agreements. Instead, observatories will be asked to contribute more for management, he said.

Ige issued a short statement thanking the university.

“I look forward to working together to make this plan a reality,” he said. “Now comes the hard work as we move forward toward a new future for Mauna Kea.”

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To view UH’s statement, visit http://tinyurl.com/maunakeaplan.

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

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