UH response to calls for ending its management of Maunakea state lands

University of Hawaiʻi
Daniel Meisenzahl, (808) 348-4936
UH Spokesman, UH Communications
Posted: Feb 3, 2021

The University of Hawaiʻi remains steadfast in its commitment to continue to improve stewardship of Maunakea. The university is willing to work with anyone to honor that commitment, which includes considering different governance structures. UH’s commitment to collaborative stewardship was clearly mandated to leadership by the Board of Regents (BOR) in an August 24, 2017 resolution, and alternative models other than UH management were publicly discussed with the UH Regents at their April 16, 2020 BOR meeting.

UH believes astronomy on Maunakea and in Hawaiʻi will be put at significant risk if work on the new land authorization is stopped at this time with no clear alternative path forward. It will take substantial time to reach an agreement on a new approach, if that can be done. If a new organization is recommended it will need to be created and funded, and even if it already exists it will have substantial work to complete the necessary plans, assessments and approvals.  Similar ideas have been previously proposed in the legislature in past years with no result. This has created uncertainty and concern amongst the existing observatories and their national and international non-profit owners/sponsors regarding matters critical to their futures. This includes the new observatory stewardship fees UH has been planning to assess and more fundamentally, whether they will be offered the opportunity to continue beyond the end of their current leases in 2033. The observatories are anxious to determine if they can continue to invest and upgrade their facilities, or must begin the long process of decommissioning.

The issues surrounding Maunakea are extraordinarily difficult, and opinions have hardened. As was noted in the recent third-party assessment of UH’s execution of the Comprehensive Management Plan, the opinions of members of the public regarding UH stewardship of Maunakea has often depended upon whether they support or oppose telescope development on the mauna. A new governance structure or land manager will not change the minds of those who are opposed to astronomy on Maunakea.

In the 1960s the State of Hawaiʻi, under the leadership of Governor Burns, determined that it wanted to support astronomy on Maunakea and further, that Hawaiʻi should not just be a landlord but should aspire to a world-class program of education and research in astronomy.  That has been achieved, and the university understands fully that the privilege of stewardship carries an even greater responsibility to mālama, to care for, Maunakea because of its unique heritage and resources.  

If the State now wishes to discontinue astronomy on Maunakea or continue as a landlord only, those are decisions for the State to make. But such decisions should be made in full recognition of the improvements in stewardship made since 2000 and the changes underway even today.  Among the public recognition of UH’s work in the last two decades are:

  • A 2020 Independent Evaluation Report commissioned by the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) stated, “We heard many comments that the cultural and natural resources on the state conservation lands on Mauna Kea are some of the best managed and protected lands in the entire State.” 

  • In 2017, the Hawai‘i Historic Foundation presented UH with a Preservation Commendation Award, the foundationʻs highest recognition of preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and interpretation of the state’s architectural, archaeological and cultural heritage.

  • In 2014, the State auditor conducted an extensive follow-up to the 1998 audit and observed: “We found that UH has developed several management plans that provide a comprehensive framework for managing and protecting Mauna Kea while balancing the competing interests of culture, conservation, scientific research and recreation.” Subsequent reviews by the State Auditor have shown continuous progress and improvement.

The BOR and the university administration under President David Lassner have undertaken a number of initiatives to create clearer lines of accountability and improve UH’s stewardship of Maunakea.

Internal restructuring

The university has undertaken an internal restructuring to make clear the lines of responsibility for stewardship of the mauna, and to corral behind one unified command the prodigious cultural, scientific and educational resources of the university.  

The Executive Director for Maunakea Stewardship position was established in August 2019 and reports directly to the UH Hilo chancellor. The executive director is responsible for all UH programs related to Maunakea and its cultural, natural, educational and scientific resources.

In August 2020, the BOR approved the restructuring of the internal management of all related UH programs creating the Center for Maunakea Stewardship. The center, a UH Hilo unit, combines the Office of Maunakea Management and Maunakea Support Services under the Executive Director for Maunakea Stewardship and formalizes the collaborative roles for the UH Institute for Astronomy and UH Hilo ʻImiloa Astronomy Center. The formal role for ʻImiloa is new and is intended to directly address concerns about UH commitment to education and outreach. In developing the Center for Maunakea Stewardship, UH considered input from the Maunakea advisory groups, community members, UH faculty, Maunakea observatories, elected officials, government agencies, staff and national partners gathered during more than 90 meetings.

Administrative rules

The UH Board of Regents adopted administrative rules for Maunakea at the end of 2019, which were signed by Gov. David Ige in January 2020. The approval took place based on input gathered during months of substantial community outreach, two rounds of formal public hearings, and hours of public testimony at BOR meetings. Regents paid careful attention to the input received and adapted the Rules to address concerns from cultural practitioners raised at their last meeting on the subject.

The management actions enabled by the administrative rules are now being implemented including establishing processes to manage access in order to limit excessive traffic, updating commercial tour operator guidelines and setting up administrative systems for managing our authorities under the rules 

Work underway

UH continues to incorporate strategies to broaden and strengthen outreach and engagement in its work to develop a new Maunakea Master Plan and update the Comprehensive Management Plan. Multiple rounds of outreach with stakeholders and the broader community are planned and already in process, including with the Native Hawaiian community. This outreach is now complicated by the Speakerʻs announcement as those opposed to astronomy may now feel they have little reason to meet with us. Those activities are essential to taking the next steps forward in continuing to advance collaborative and holistic stewardship of Maunakea.