The University of Hawai’i (UH) is responsible for the illegal, haphazard and destructive overdevelopment of Mauna Kea, one of the most sacred sites for Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians). But UH has always been the tenant of the mountain, which gave some degree of independent oversight by a separate state agency. Kanaka Maoli have successfully fought off the massive expansion of Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea (which violated the management plan). But UH now wants to build the largest telescope in the world – the Thirty Meter Telescope – on Mauna Kea and the Air Force wants to build the PanSTARRS telescope there. So UH is pushing for legislation and approval of a management plan that turns the authority for Mauna Kea over to UH itself – the proverbial fox guarding the hen house. Time to stop the desecration! See the following article from the Hawai’i Independent about the current state of the struggle over Mauna Kea.
King of the mountain?
Posted March 18th, 2009 in Hawaii Island by Alan McNarie
It’s become a familiar pattern in recent years: a developer gets the go-ahead for a project from various state and/or county agencies. Then the developer and the government agencies get sued by citizens’ groups for not following the state’s own laws. The courts side with the activists. Then, instead of complying with the court ruling, the developer asks the state Legislature to change the law it broke.
It happened with Hokulia. It happened with the Hawaii Superferry. And now, according to some environmentalists and native Hawaiians, it’s happening again-only this time, the developer is the University of Hawaii, and the property in question is the top of Mauna Kea.
For decades, the university has been paying the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources a dollar a year for the mountaintop, then subleasing sites there to various institutions that erect huge telescopes. The telescope consortiums pay the university a dollar plus telescope viewing time for UH Institute for Astronomy’s professors and students. For decades, activists have been complaining that the university has been damaging the mountain’s environment. They complained that the university’s own development plan had called for no more than 13 scopes on the mountain-yet that number had already been exceeded and the university was still considering applications for even more and bigger facilities. Native Hawaiians argued that the big scopes were desecrating their sacred mountain, damaging ancient cultural sites and interfering with their religious and cultural practices. Environmentalists noted that telescope construction had destroyed much of the native habitat for the wekiu bug, an endangered insect that lives only in the cindery upper regions of Mauna Kea.
The activists point to a federal environmental impact statement that found “cumulative and significant adverse impacts generated by the astronomical activities on the summit,” in violation of the state’s mandates for management of a conservation district. They note that the dollar-a-year leases violated Hawai`i Revised Statutes 171-18, which requires the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) to collect “fair market value” rents from lessees of state lands.
The campaigners won a significant victory in August of 2002, when Circut Court Judge Glenn Hara ruled that the university and the BLNR could not approve any new telescope development until the BLNR had developed a truly comprehensive land-management plan for the Mauna Kea summit area. The BLNR recently dropped its appeal of that case, but the activists’ motion for court costs is still under consideration. Meanwhile, in response to that case, a draft Comprehensive Management Plan came out last month-but it was written under the aegis of the university’s Office of Mauna Kea Management (OMKM), not the BLNR. The draft plan is currently available for review online at www.maunakeacmp.org. According to OMKM Director Stephanie Nagata, the BLNR may vote on the plan in April.
Even before the plan is approved, the university is pushing bills in the Legislature to give the OMKM the power to enforce the plan’s provisions. House Bill 1174 and Senate Bill 502 would grant agents of the university’s Mauna Kea Management Board and OMKM the right to make and enforce regulations governing visitors to the mountain, to restrict visitor access to daylight hours, to charge fees and levy fines on those visitors, and to keep the proceeds from those fees and fines in a special fund for managing the lands on the mountain top.
OMKM and its supporters claim that the bills and the management plan are simply giving the activists and the public what they’ve been asking for: better protection for Mauna Kea and its resources. But the bills’ opponents see it as a power grab by the university.
“The university and its attorney, Lisa Munger [also attorney for the Hawaii Superferry Inc.], recognize that they are unlikely to prevail on an appeal of the current laws protecting Mauna Kea. Thus, they are seeking to drastically change those laws to better favor their interests,” read a joint letter of testimony signed by plaintiffs in the court case.
“The Board of Land and Natural Resources and their staff should by law be writing that management plan-not the Board of Regents and not [UH-Hilo Chancellor] Rose Tseng,” believes Nelson Ho, who signed the letter for the Sierra Club. Ho says that if the bills pass as written, the groups will be back in court to challenge them.
“I do know that the Sierra Club has this position that the DLNR is abrogating their responsibility,” responds OMKM’s Nagata. But she maintains, “They’re not, for the very reason that they’re doing their own independent review and they’re approving the plan.”
Ho claims that the draft plan is “seriously flawed.”
“It repeats several lies again and again, in the hope that the Legislature and the BLNR see that as the truth,” he maintains. One of those “lies,” he says, is “that the industrial activities of international astronomy are not the problem on Mauna Kea. The problem is unrestricted access of people who bring up their plate lunches and leave their hamburger wrappers as debris.”
Nagata, not surprisingly, disagrees.
“I think he’s quite misguided in his interpretation of the management plan,” she says. “The major focus of the plan is a recognition particularly of the cultural significance, as well as the environmental significance of the mountain, and the plan is to provide us with guidelines for how to protect the cultural and natural resources from all kinds of uses and activities, including construction….”
The truth lies somewhere between their viewpoints. The plan does, in fact, address impacts from both observatory construction and from visitors. It requires an environmental monitor and an archeologist to be present at any future construction, for instance, with the power to halt construction if they see the need. It recommends that all visitors, telescope personnel and construction workers undergo an orientation session so that they will be more culturally and environmentally aware. It suggests a wash station to remove foreign seeds and insects from vehicles traveling up the mountain.
But the plan also deliberately avoids many of the issues that are among the sorest points for the community. Among the issues that it claims are “beyond the scope of this CMP”:
• Termination of the state lease between the university and the BLNR
• Use of ceded lands for $1 a year or nominal consideration
• Subleases between the university and the observatories
• Extension of the state lease beyond 2033
• Decommissioning [of obsolete telescopes]
• Proposed new development on Mauna Kea, including the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and Pan Starrs
• Community benefit package with increased educational benefits
• Guaranteed employment opportunities for native Hawaiians and the people on the Island of Hawai‘i”
While the plan lists guidelines and recommendations for future construction, it leaves the question of whether more telescopes should be built to the university’s Board of Regents, with the guidance of a “2000 Master Plan” that was never approved by the BLNR.
Native Hawaiian Concerns
Among the thorniest issues on the mountain is the relationship between the university and native Hawaiians. The CMP devotes pages to the essential role that Mauna Kea plays in native Hawaiian beliefs and practices, and claims to model its recommendations on those beliefs and to consult native families with ties to the mountain. But the plan and the Legislative bills also call for university agents to have the power to regulate Hawaiian activities on Mauna Kea.
It became clear that the community had a number of issues and concerns related to past and future activities on Mauna Kea and specifically within the UH Management Areas that were beyond the scope of this CMP. These issues and concerns are cited below and policy makers are urged to consider them in their broader decision making related to Mauna Kea.
The plan calls for free access for native Hawaiian cultural uses, “except where safety, resource management, cultural appropriateness, and legal compliance considerations may require reasonable restrictions.” But it also calls for several restrictions on those practices. Hawaiians couldn’t be on the mountaintop after dark, for instance, without a special permit; they could only scatter the ashes of their dead with a special use permit. The MKMB and its Hawaiian advisory groups would have the authority to dismantle any ahu (stone cairns) or altars that it deems culturally inappropriate.
That last provision may strike an especially raw nerve with Kealoha Pisciotta, a native Hawaiian practitioner and former telescope technician who has become one of the university’s most adamant critics. Pisciotta once constructed an ahu on the mountain that contained a family pohaku (sacred stone). It was dismantled and the pohaku was hauled to the Hilo landfill.
Pisciotta see a multitude of problems with the university’s appointed officials defining and controlling Hawaiian practices.
“Now the university is determining not only when and how the ceremonies can be conducted, but who can be there…,” she notes. “I can get a permit to practice, but I can’t bring my mom or my sister or anybody else.”
Pisciotta says over a thousand opponents of the university’s plan have already sent their testimony to the legislature.
The authors of the CMP are very aware that the university has a public relations problem. The document begins by acknowledging that the “lack of cultural sensitivity engendered anger, hurt, and distrust towards the University of Hawai‘i for not being a good steward of Mauna Kea.” But the basic message seems to be, “We get it now.” The university is casting itself, through the CMP and the OMKM, as the solution.
“My interpretation of their [CMP opponents’] actions is that they prefer not to have the resources protected,” Nagata told the Independent.
But opponents obviously see it differently. For them, the bottom line is that the university continues to get free viewing time, the telescope consortiums continue to pay their one dollar rents, and if the mountain is going to be protected, all the other users will need to pay for it through fees and fines that the university gets to impose and spend. They see a “comprehensive management plan” that sidesteps some of the basic issues of planning, such as determining how many telescopes the mountain can support.
And no matter how good the plan is, many of its opponents just don’t trust the university, with its long record of ignoring its own recommendations, to police itself, much less the mountain’s other users.
“The CMP is not comprehensive. Even if it were a plan…the problem here is that they’re going to set a negative precedent with this bill by privatizing public land, putting it into the exclusive control of the developers,” believes Pisciotta.
Ho admits that if a body like OMKM were under the DLNR, it might meet some of his objections, at least “hypothetically.”
“But I would want to see the specific charges of that body, because, in fact the Board of Land and Natural Resources is that body, and they should be overseeing the writing of that plan,” he adds.
There is much in the CMP for its opponents to like. It does establish some guidelines for better supervision of telescope construction. It does endorse Hawaiian values in managing the mountain, and gives some Hawaiians a say in its management-if only Hawaiians appointed by the university. It does set up a framework for protecting Hawaiian cultural sites and the island’s wild denizens. But all of that may come to naught, because the plan doesn’t seriously address perhaps the biggest question of all: Should the University be king of the mountain?
Alan McNarie is a Hawai‘i-based journalist.