HILO — When it comes to Maunakea, Mayor Harry Kim might seem like a dreamer.
But he’s counting on not being the only one.
More than three months after Gov. David Ige gave him the green light to pursue his vision of the mountain as a symbol of international cooperation, the pursuit of knowledge and the Hawaiian people, Kim said Thursday he is close to selecting a committee to help him make that a reality.
He declined to name the six people chosen so far since the process isn’t complete, but Kim said each has to share his passion for resolving the conflict surrounding the mountain and better connecting its uses, including astronomy, with Hawaii Island’s heritage.
“I told them you got to feel, this mission here, is right from the bottom of your soul,” he said.
But Kim also knows his time might be running short with only a couple of more months until TMT International Observatory, the organization behind the Thirty Meter Telescope, faces a self-imposed deadline for deciding whether to build on Maunakea or go elsewhere.
He said support for the $1.4 billion astronomy project isn’t a prerequisite for sitting on the committee, and he doesn’t ask for the candidates’ opinion on that issue.
But Kim sees the telescope nonetheless as a tool for fulfilling his vision if it can be used to bring people of different backgrounds, viewpoints and interests together. That’s something the mayor, who often cites pride in Hawaii’s diverse population, said is part of the islands’ fabric, and he doesn’t want the opportunity to be lost.
“I will feel a great sense of loss and sadness,” Kim said, if TMT isn’t built on Maunakea. “But not for the (telescope). But very few times we have an opportunity of this scope. Not just for Hawaii, but for the world.”
He continued, “The mission of the place is to be a beacon of hope for the world. The mission for this is to bring world recognition of the Hawaiians, their achievement as well as the wrongs (done to them). The mission of this mountain is not just to showcase that, but to showcase to the world the beauty of the cosmopolitan people (of Hawaii) and the possibility of harmony and peace. Where else, but this little place in the ocean, to have countries commit to that.”
Kim provided a mission statement for his vision, which places Hawaiians’ connection to the mountain and exploration front and center.
“A central theme of Maunakea should be of the native Hawaiians’ exploration of the ocean to the discoveries of the universe,” it reads. “Hawaiians understood how the world was connected from the mountain to the sea. They explored the ocean and learned about the heavens to guide them. They believe that this majestic mountain is the earth’s connecting point to the rest of our universe. This is about the mountain being part of their soul.”
As for the committee, its goals, according to a printout Kim provided the Tribune-Herald, will be to “review and reorganize” the mountain’s management authority, currently under the University of Hawaii; “create educational programs that feature the special characteristics of Maunakea;” create a major cultural center and gathering place that will “acknowledge the history and contributions of native Hawaiians;” participate in efforts to integrate culture and nature in heritage protection; and establish the mountain as a monument of global significance.
He said the type of people he’s been looking for to sit on the committee include specialists in Native Hawaiian education and a cultural ethnographer.
Maunakea is mostly comprised of state land, over which Hawaii County doesn’t have authority.
Kim acknowledged it would be up to state officials and other organizations to put his vision into place. While Ige said he supports the endeavor, it remains unclear how Kim’s committee will factor into decisions about the mountain’s future.
Additionally, Kim’s support for TMT, which would keep Hawaii at the forefront of astronomy, has made project opponents skeptical of his intentions. The mayor said he wants their support but a meeting last year with those challenging the project in court didn’t appear to change any minds.
Previously, Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the appellants who attended the meeting with Kim, said they can’t support the idea with TMT in the picture.
Lanakila Mangauil, who helped lead protests that stopped construction of TMT in 2014 and 2015, said he is open to the concept, but he questioned the motivation.
“For me, it seems to just be trying to be a distraction and deflection from what’s happening on the mountain,” he said.
Still, Mangauil said he’d like to be part of the conversation.
“The idea of having Maunakea symbolize, be a beacon of peace in the world — I’m all down for that,” he said.
TMT opponents say the mountain is overdeveloped and hasn’t been managed with enough respect for their interests. They include Hawaiian religious practitioners, environmentalists, as well as advocates for Hawaiian sovereignty or independence.
Kim said he acknowledges the mountain is sacred to some Hawaiians and that he wants to account for what he says has been its mismanagement. He said the “protectors,” using the title TMT opponents prefer, “are not our enemy.”
“If you’re going to develop this place for science,” Kim said he told UH officials, “please remember that to a lot of people, this is not a place for science, that this is part of their soul. And if you’re going to trample on their soul, please do it with care with caution and compassion.”
UH-Hilo manages the 11,288-acre Maunakea Science Reserve through its Office of Maunakea Management, whose job includes protecting natural and cultural resources. A UH spokesman said the university remains committed to collaborative stewardship.
Kim said he supports TMT because its representatives have said they want to make the community a part of the project and its accomplishments.
He said he told them they can’t build TMT in “isolation” and that they have to develop programs that will make “an open invitation” for children.
“You have to really have all the sensitivity of how you are going to be part of that, what kind of things you are going to support to do that,” Kim said he told the representatives of the international group.
He said they were “absolutely” supportive and understanding of his vision.
TIO is contributing $1 million a year for educational programs on the island. Its partners are Caltech, University of California and national institutes in Canada, Japan, China and India.
Scott Ishikawa, a spokesman for the organization, said in an email that “TMT is inspired by Mayor Kim’s vision for Maunakea.”
The TIO board has set April as a deadline for deciding whether to stick with Maunakea or go to the Canary Islands.
Appeals of the project’s land use permit and sublease are being reviewed by the state Supreme Court.
Oral arguments have been set for March 15 in the sublease case, but have not been scheduled for the permit appeal.
TMT opponents were granted a 10-day extension for filing briefs in the permit appeal Friday. That follows an earlier one-month extension.
“Maunakea is still our preferred site for the Thirty Meter Telescope, and we continue to assess the ongoing situation,” Ishikawa said.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.