There are currently 13 observatories on the summit of Mauna Kea, with one more planned. As part of their mismanagement of the mountain, the state and the university have failed to prudently negotiate sublease terms for observatories and failed to manage observatory development and decommissioning. A 1998 state audit found that UH did not allocate suf - cient resources to protect Mauna Kea’s natural resources because it focused primarily on astronomy development. - Photo: sin_ok, adobestock.com

“…We have in many ways failed the mountain…
we have not done right by a very special place.”

-Gov. David Ige, May 26, 2015

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) filed a lawsuit Nov. 7 in First Circuit Court against the State of Hawaiʻi and the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) for their longstanding and well-documented mismanagement of Mauna Kea.

OHA’s complaint requests the court to order the state to fulfill its trust obligations relating to Mauna Kea and to terminate UH’s general lease for the mountain for breach of the lease’s terms.

“The state and UH have failed to properly mālama Mauna Kea and have demonstrated their inability to ensure that the environmental and cultural significance of the mountain is recognized and protected,” said OHA Trustee Dan Ahuna, the chair of OHA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Mauna Kea. “This is not about any one telescope. This lawsuit is about addressing the state’s failure to manage the entire mountain for nearly half a century.”

“It’s time to abandon any hope that UH is capable or even willing to provide the level of aloha and attention to Mauna Kea that it deserves,” Ahuna continued. “We need to come together as a community to completely re-think how we care for the mauna, and that starts with cancelling the university’s master lease.”

The university is responsible for managing, among other things, the Mauna Kea Summit Access Road. Numerous car accidents have occurred on the mountain due to dangerous driving conditions. Despite being told by the state auditor to adopt rules in 1998 and receiving rule making authority from the state Legislature in 2009, the university has still never adopted a single administrative rule to manage public and commercial access and activities, including vehicular use. – Photo: Big Mikey and Richard of Ken’s Towing

Since then, four state audits have documented and criticized the state and UH’s mismanagement of Mauna Kea. The initial audit from 1998 concluded that “little was done” to protect the natural resources on Mauna Kea since the rst telescope was constructed in 1968. The audit further noted that UH did not allocate sufficient resources to protect Mauna Kea’s natural resources because it focused primarily on astronomy development.

“The University of Hawaiʻi’s management of the Mauna Kea Science Reserve is inadequate to ensure the protection of natural resources. The university focused primarily on the development of Mauna Kea and tied the benefits gained to its research program. The university’s control over public access was weak and its efforts to protect natural resources were piecemeal. The university neglected historic preservation, and the cultural value of Mauna Kea was largely unrecognized,” noted the Hawaiʻi State Auditor.

“We have in many ways failed the mountain,” Gov. David Ige said on May 26, 2015. “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.”

The following week, UH President David Lassner and UH Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney, acknowledged, “UH has not yet met all of [its] obligations to the mountain or the expectations of the community.”

An contemporarily-built altar overlooking several observatories. Mauna Kea is a deeply sacred place that is revered in Hawaiian traditions. It’s regarded as a shrine for worship, as a home to the gods, and as the piko of Hawaiʻi Island.- Photo: Galyna Andrushko, adobestock.com
This ahu is one of 233 ancient shrines that have been identifi ed on Mauna Kea, constituting what is probably the largest and arguably one of the most important complexes of “non-monumental” religious structures with stone uprights in Polynesia. – Photo: Kalei Nu‘uhiwa

Over the decades, OHA has continuously advocated for improved management with the Legislature, UH Board of Regents, UH’s Office of Mauna Kea Management and BLNR. In 2002, OHA led a federal lawsuit to force NASA to conduct a more comprehensive environmental study for an observatory project that was proposed for Mauna Kea but eventually abandoned.

With growing concern regarding the management of Mauna Kea, OHA entered into a mediated process with the state and UH in 2015 to address these management shortcomings. Ultimately, the nearly two-year process was unsuccessful.

“Having exhausted all our options, we are compelled to file this lawsuit to hold the state accountable for its mismanagement.”

For more information about OHA’s lawsuit, please www.oha.org/maunakea.

As trustees of Mauna Kea, both the state and UH have breached their moral and legal obligations to manage this important place. OHA has identified countless issues and failings that have attributed to the continued mismanagement of Mauna Kea by the state and UH, including:

  • Failure to budget and fund proper management of Mauna Kea;
  • Failure to prudently negotiate sublease terms – for example, by allowing 11 of 13 telescopes to not pay rent;
  • Failure to adequately implement the 2009 Comprehensive Management Plan, with 32 of the 54 management actions that specifically affect Native Hawaiians remaining incomplete;
  • Failure to create an environment respectful of Mauna Kea’s cultural landscape, including by not adequately protecting Native Hawaiian traditional and customary rights and practices on Mauna Kea;
  • Failure to manage access to Mauna Kea and activities on Mauna Kea, which has led to vehicular accidents and personal injuries and deaths, and hazardous material spills; and
  • Failure to manage observatory development and decommissioning.