“We have in many ways failed the mountain.”
Over two years ago, when Gov. David Ige made this honest statement regarding Mauna Kea, many expected swift action. The governor intended to enhance stewardship of Mauna Kea and noted that “we have not done right by a very special place and we must act immediately to change that.”
Shortly thereafter, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) initiated private mediation with the governor, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), and the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) to address longstanding mismanagement of the mauna and to offer proposals for alternative management structures.
Despite a promising start, UH abandoned the process after only a few sessions, and, while positive discussions continued without UH, the process did not proceed with the urgency OHA expected.
Instead, consistent with its legal responsibilities, OHA notified the state, DLNR and UH of its intent to sue these agencies to protect Mauna Kea from continued mismanagement and desecration. The prospect of legal action invigorated the resolution process and an agreement on a new management structure seemed imminent as late as May. Unfortunately, all discussions with the state have again stalled, and the specter of litigation looms again.
Reformation of the current management structure is critical to Mauna Kea’s future. Regardless of one’s position on telescopes, it is clear that UH has failed as a steward. In fact, even telescope proponents and their consultants agree that there is “a bad history on the mountain” including “poor master and management planning,” and “bureaucratic bumbling, broken promises, technocratic arrogance” as well as “the failure to consult Native Hawaiians in management decisions, and inadequate access for cultural and spiritual practices.”
A series of scathing legislative audits dating back to 1998 document UH’s many failures. Of these, UH’s failure to control access has led to numerous safety issues, including fatal vehicular and hiking accidents and the proliferation of unpermitted and uncontrolled commercial tourism. Unfettered access continues to jeopardize Mauna Kea’s unique and fragile natural resources and pierces its cultural sacredness. Despite its recent publicity pieces, UH has not made substantial progress in any aspect of resource management except telescope development.
Recognizing the need to improve its management of Mauna Kea, the Legislature in 2009 granted UH the authority to promulgate administrative rules. Five years later, seeing no effort to exercise this authority, the state’s 2014 audit directly warned: “(u)ntil (UH) adopts administrative rules for its Mauna Kea lands, UH cannot fulfill its stewardship responsibilities.” To this day, UH has not promulgated a single rule.
Instead, UH has prioritized the development of observatories at the expense of Mauna Kea’s natural and cultural resources. Its fi duciary, contractual and moral obligations, however, are not solely related to academic or scientific pursuits and institutions; rather, they include kuleana to the people of Hawai‘i and Native Hawaiians who have struggled to protect the essence of Mauna Kea. After decades of failure, UH must offer the broad community more than lip service.
Action — including results, not just “progress” — is long overdue.
Since the state’s admission of failure on May 26, 2015, OHA has worked with the governor, DLNR and, as much as possible, UH to create a more effective management structure for Mauna Kea that includes a strong role for OHA and the Native Hawaiian community. OHA is committed to ensuring that Mauna Kea is properly managed with appropriate protocols in place to protect this cultural treasure from further exploitation. This is not about money, or any single telescope.
This is about doing right by Mauna Kea.
Dan Ahuna is an Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee for Kauai and Niʻihau. He is also the chair of the OHA Board of Trustees’ Ad Hoc Committee on Mauna Kea.