Photo: Kuahu atop Mauna Kea
The juxtaposition of a kuahu (altar) atop Mauna Kea stands in stark contrast to the row of telescopes visible in the background. - Photo: Galyna Andruskhko/AdobeStock

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On Jan. 17, 2024, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) filed a Circuit Court lawsuit challenging the legality and constitutionality of Act 255 which established the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority (Authority). Act 255 was passed by the Hawaiʻi State Legislature and signed into law by then-Governor David Ige in 2022.

Act 255 charged the Authority with being the principal state agency with responsibility for managing the Mauna Kea lands, which are part of the ceded lands trust. By establishing the Authority, Act 255 creates a new trustee entity, releasing the state from all obligations regarding management of Mauna Kea as required by the state’s lease between the Board of Land and Natural Resources and the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) entered on June 21, 1968.

Comprised of 11 members, the Authority began meeting in June 2023 in anticipation of taking over management of these lands from the UH and the Department of Land and Natural Resources in four years. OHA does not have a representative on the Authority.

Act 255 specifically designates a seat on the Authority for a representative of the telescopes on Mauna Kea. This creates a conflict of interest where that representative has the ability to vote on actions that can benefit them. This creates a breach of contract and fiduciary duties.

Additionally, the structure of the Authority established by Act 255 is flawed and works towards complete privatization of Mauna Kea lands to the sole benefit of the UH astronomy program and to the detriment of other trust purposes and other beneficiaries of the ceded lands trust.

“Mauna Kea represents a sacred space for Native Hawaiians. It is OHA’s responsibility to advocate for Native Hawaiians and protect Hawaiian resources,” said OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey. “Ultimately, it is our goal to make the mauna more accessible and provide greater protections against the abuses it has sustained for more than 50 years.”

A 2017 OHA lawsuit alleging mismanagement of the Mauna Kea lands survived an attempt by the state and UH to render OHA’s claims moot. OHA is seeking to judicially dissolve the Authority and have the merits of the 2017 OHA lawsuit adjudicated in court.

“This recent lawsuit is designed to protect the rights of the Native Hawaiian people who are one of the beneficiaries of the Mauna Kea lands and who have received no benefit from the state, in contrast to the many benefits the University of Hawaiʻi and the astronomy interests have received for decades,” said OHA Board Counsel Robert Klein.

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