As thousands of Native Hawaiians ascend onto Maunakea and thousands more rally across the islands, all to demand the protection of the sacred mountain, many in Hawai‘i may wonder how exactly did we get here?
After all, 13 telescopes already sit on the mountain. Why is another one causing all this fuss?
Native Hawaiians have always cared deeply about Maunakea. At the same time, Native Hawaiians – in the true spirit of aloha – have shared the mauna with science. But we have always wanted a balance: properly-managed development that protected the cultural and natural components of the mountain. What we’ve seen instead is the exact opposite. Over the last 50 years, we’ve witnessed an explosion of astronomy development on Maunakea at the expense of everything else.
This is not an issue of culture versus science. And it’s not strictly about the Thirty Meter Telescope or any one telescope.
The issue is about the continued expansion of an industrial complex on a sacred place. It’s about Native Hawaiians reaching a breaking point after decades of government officials dismissing their concerns over appropriate management of a site that is meant to be conserved. Ultimately, it’s about Native Hawaiians reasserting control over a native resource that the state has failed to protect.
The history of astronomy development on Maunakea is long and complicated. Controlling development is, at the end of the day, the most important component of responsible management of environmentally- and culturally-sensitive lands, in this case located in the state’s conservation district. For decades, the number of telescopes on the mountain was a seminal concern of Native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike. Establishing a cap on astronomy development took center stage of nearly every effort to establish management plans that balance protecting Maunakea’s natural and cultural resources with astronomy.
In 1968, the state awarded a 65-year lease to UH for Maunakea for a single observatory. In short order, three telescopes were erected.
In 1974, Acting Gov. George Ariyoshi expressed concern that scientific, recreational and other social pressures posed “a threat to the priceless qualities” of Maunakea. As a result, he directed the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to develop what would be the first management plan for the mountain.
A broad segment of the community participated in drafting the plan. A number of hunting and conservation groups and even Hawai‘i County Mayor Herbert T. Matayoshi called for telescope development to be limited to six: the three existing telescopes and the three slated for completion by the end of the decade. Ultimately, the 1977 Mauna Kea Plan failed to include a limit on astronomy development.
In 1980, the Hawai‘i Tribune-Herald ran a spread on Maunakea that highlighted community concerns over the number of observatories on the mountain. The article noted the sacredness of Maunakea to Native Hawaiians, and that “the rarified atmosphere on the mountain’s higher slopes and summit […] should not unreasonably be disturbed in the name of progress or scientific development.” Members of the Waimea Hawaiian Civic Club wrote that while some of their members supported astronomy, others expressed consternation at the changes to the mountain caused by observatory development. Several members, the club said, were adamant about “no more building.” The director of UH’s Institute for Astronomy wrote that he was often asked “How many new telescopes are likely to be built on Mauna Kea and, anyway, why are any more needed?” Only six telescopes existed on the mauna at the time, half the number at present.
Several years later, the BLNR approved the 1985 Mauna Kea Management Plan, which allowed for 13 telescopes. This paved the way for a flurry of development. New telescopes such as the two Kecks, the Subaru and the Gemini would be substantially larger than previous observatories on the mountain. Construction was so rapid that UH couldn’t keep up. The university had to request retroactive approval for four telescope subleases.
As the mauna quickly transformed into an industrial complex, the community’s concerns turned into frustration. Nelson Ho, of the Sierra Club’s Hawai‘i Chapter, questioned the growth of astronomy as UH drafted its 1995 Management Plan.
“Cleary the people of Hawaii have been generous in sharing their mountain with the world’s leading astronomers,” he wrote. “But apparently even all that development is not enough to satisfy the scientists […] Moreover, no agency should approve changes to the existing management plan without knowing how many telescopes they are planning for – thirteen? Eighteen? Twenty-five telescopes? Yet the proposal remains – perhaps intentionally – silent on this issue.”
The 1995 plan failed to account for observatory development.
By the late 1990s, the Native Hawaiian community’s frustration continued to mount, culminating with calls for a moratorium on telescope development. Concerns finally reached the capitol. At the request of the Legislature, the state auditor released the first in a string of four audits over nearly two decades that were highly critical of the state and UH’s management of Maunakea. The initial audit found that:
“[UH’s] focus on telescope construction on Mauna Kea’s summit propelled the site into a premier location for astronomical research. However, this emphasis was at the expense of neglecting the site’s natural resources”.
In 1999 alone, three telescopes were completed. In 2000, UH released its long-awaited response to the 1998 audit: its new Master Plan. While the plan detailed future development plans, it was never approved by the Board of Land and Natural Resources, leaving its applicability in question.
In 2002, the last telescope to be built on a new footprint was finished, bringing observatory development to the limit of 13 set by the 1985 plan. Nevertheless, UH continued to push for more astronomy development. NASA proposed up to six new, smaller outrigger telescopes that would surround the two 10-meter Keck telescopes. In 2004, two Hawaiian organizations and the Sierra Club’s Hawai‘i Chapter sued. In 2007, a third circuit court judge found that the outrigger telescopes were not supported by an appropriate management plan, leading to the abandonment of the project.
In the late 2000s, the university pushed for yet another management plan. It championed its new Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP), and its four subplans, as a game changer in how it would care for the mauna. But despite Native Hawaiians demanding that the new plan provide details on the future of astronomy on the mountain, the CMP failed to fully address the matter. The plan only went so far as to say that UH “foresees” that there “may be” 10 telescopes by 2033, the end of UH’s general lease for Maunakea.
After opposition to TMT grew in 2015, Gov. David Ige acknowledged the state had “failed” Maunakea. In 2017, OHA filed a lawsuit against the state and UH for their longstanding mismanagement of the mountain.
Of all the multitude of management plans for the mountain developed over the course of three decades, only one – the 1985 management plan – was both approved by the state and included a limit on astronomy development. Technology has changed dramatically over time with the footprints of newer telescopes exceeding those of the first generation of telescopes on Maunakea. At the same time, existing telescopes are becoming obsolete. Further, many continue to argue that the 13 existing telescopes are too much. Yet despite all of this, the state continues to avoid producing a new comprehensive plan that updates the limit of astronomy development that appropriately balances science with the protection of the mountain’s natural and cultural resources.
This single management failure explains so much of what’s happening on the mountain today, why Native Hawaiians do not trust the state’s ability to steward Maunakea, and why so many are so strident against future observatory development.
This is why Native Hawaiians are calling for a new management structure for the mountain. This mo‘olelo is how we got here and and will continue to be the mo‘okūauhau of resilience of our Lāhui.
The Pillars of Maunakea
Kūpuna were removed by state officials from their positions at the front line of the Maunakea protest. Many were carried, assisted, and pushed in wheelchairs, as they were arrested and taken into custody. 1st & 2nd Photo: Dino Morrow / 3rd Photo: Ruben Carillo – 4 Miles
On July 17, 2019, the state of Hawai‘i made the decision to arrest more than 30 revered kūpuna (elders) from the front lines of the protest on Maunakea. These kūpuna formed a line across Maunakea Access Road, blocking the pathway for construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Together they stood firmly in opposition until officers removed them from the road.
- Jim Albertini
- Sharol Ku‘ualoha Awai
- Tomas Belsky
- Roberta Benett
- Marie Alohalani Brown
- Kini Burke
- Luana Busby
- Daycia-Dee Chun
- Alika Desha
- Richard Dillion
- Peleiholani Edleen
- Billy Freitas
- Momi Patricia Green
- Desmond Haumea
- Hooulualoha Hookano
- Deena Lokelani Hurwitz
- Skippy Ioane
- Leilani Ka‘apuni
- Maxine Kahā‘ulelio
- Ana Kaho‘opi‘i
- Nohea Kalima
- Kaliko Kanaele
- Pua Kanaka‘ole Kanahele
- Deborah Lee
- Donna Keala Leong
- Danny Li
- Trustee Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey
- Abel Simeona Lui
- Liko Martin
- Jimmy Nani‘ole
- Renee Price
- Hawley Reese
- Loretta Ritte
- Walter Ritte
- Raynette Robinson
- Mililani Trask
- Onaona Trask
- Keoni Turalde
- Michelle Noenoe Wong-Wilson