Resolutions call for formation of working group to guide Maunakea management

  • The sunset is seen from Maunakea in early February. (John Steenhuis/Community Contributor)

Two state House committees approved a pair of resolutions to examine new ways to manage Maunakea, though not without some misgivings.

House Resolution 33 and House Concurrent Resolution 41, which both call for the formation of a working group that would develop recommendations for the future of Maunakea governance, were the subject of a joint hearing Thursday by the committees on Water and Land, and Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs.

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The resolutions were introduced earlier this month by North and South Kohala Rep. David Tarnas, following comments by House Speaker Scott Saiki that the University of Hawaii should be replaced as the manager of Maunakea.

They resolve to, if passed, form a group consisting of 15 members — seven of whom would be Native Hawaiian and nominated by Native Hawaiian groups — that would make recommendations for a new management structure for the mountain, which is currently managed by the University of Hawaii.

While most of the committee members were largely in support of the resolutions Thursday, some raised concerns that they had a narrow focus or were unhelpfully vague — criticisms that were echoed by several people who testified.

Greg Chun, UH’s executive director of Maunakea Stewardship, testified at the hearing, saying the university supports the intent of the resolutions but believes they have fundamental flaws. In particular, he said the purpose of the resolutions is unclear, and the feasibility of implementing any recommendations that result from them is doubtful.

Chun also pointed out that both resolutions call for the working group to draw exclusively from a December 2020 independent evaluation of UH’s success in implementing its Comprehensive Management Plan. That report found, among other things, that the university’s ability to communicate with Native Hawaiians and cultural practitioners was lacking.

“We believe this provides an unbalanced starting point for the working group,” Chun said. “It is our experience that our critics hesitate to engage (with UH) for several reasons: either their opposition to any form of astronomy on Maunakea, or concern that any input on their part be considered as tacit support of UH and the Thirty Meter Telescope.”

Oahu Rep. Gene Ward repeatedly referred to the TMT project as an “800-pound gorilla in the room,” pointing out that, even though the proposed telescope is never mentioned in the resolutions, the controversial project — and the loud opposition to it — likely is the impetus for their introduction.

Several testifiers, however, did discuss TMT, largely as their basis to oppose the resolutions.

Healani Sonoda-Pale, spokeswoman of the Ka Lahui Hawaii Political Action Committee, said it is difficult to trust the state’s management of any Maunakea-related issue given the events of 2019, when protesters occupied the Maunakea Access Road for months in order to prevent TMT’s construction.

“The working group, we fear, will be stacked against the interests of k‘iai mauna,” Sonoda-Pale said, using a term meaning “protector” that is often self-applied by TMT opponents. “(We) have been successful in stopping the building of TMT, and that is the whole point of this working group — building of TMT. We feel that this is a way to find a way forward for that.”

Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a prominent opponent of TMT, wrote on behalf of the Hawaiian Civic Club of Hilo that she supports the resolutions — specifically because of their potential to remove UH from its management role on the mountain.

Most other written testimony by individuals echoed Sonoda-Pale and expressed doubts that any working group would act in the interest of TMT opponents.

Other written testimony from state agencies and the Maunakea Observatories was generally in support of the resolutions.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which made up the bulk of the testimony with more than 100 pages of supporting documents, supported the intent of the resolutions but requested that Native Hawaiians and cultural practitioners make up “more than just a bare majority” of the working group.

Among the House committee members, most were in favor of the resolutions, albeit with reservations. Two members, however, opposed the resolutions: Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs committee members Ward and Manoa Rep. Dale Kobayashi, who minced no words in calling the resolutions a disingenuous waste of time.

“(The working group) is going to be controlled by our Legislature here, a body which has overwhelmingly been in support of development of Maunakea and the building of TMT,” Kobayashi said, who said he is opposed to further development on Maunakea. “We are supposed to look at this and determine that this is going to be a fair way for us to come to a resolution?

“It’s not going to be something where there’s no more development on Maunakea,” Kobayashi went on. “If that’s what you want, you don’t support this bill. This is for those that woke up one day and decided that the most important thing was astronomy over the wishes of people, those that decided that we should spend $30 million to violently suppress peaceful protesters on Maunakea.”

Ward was less fiery, but came to the same conclusion.

“I can’t see how this resolution gets us anywhere beyond where we are now, and that’s in gridlock,” Ward said.

Ward and Kobayashi were the only votes against the resolutions in either committee. Both resolutions passed the Water and Land committee unanimously, and the Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs committee 9-2.

UH-Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin said during a conversation with the Tribune-Herald after the resolutions’ passage that she hopes the working group can take into consideration the university’s efforts to improve stewardship of the mountain, but added that there isn’t much time to implement new recommendations for management of Maunakea before the master lease expires in 2033.

“Realistically, for the current observatories, this all needs to be wrapped up by probably 2025 to ensure their continued funding, because they’re supported by international consortia, and there are many, many moving parts,” Irwin said. “So, the time is not quite as long as people think, which is why we’re moving ahead with our master planning and are doing a revision of the comprehensive management plan, both of which will be presented to our Board of Regents in this calendar year … unless this task group that the House wants to put together make a completely different call, in which case it’s out of my hands.

“I think over the course of the last 20 years, University of Hawaii has done a better job at stewarding the lands of Maunakea,” Irwin concluded. “In the early days, yeah, we did make some missteps, but we’ve gotten better and better. We’ve been listening, taking this seriously.

“There have been several state audit reports since 1998 and each successive report points out that we’re doing better than we were the last time. So, I’m hopeful this task group, if it gets put together, is going to recognize all the good things that we’ve been doing and then discusses those challenges, and if there are ways we can do it better, we want to know what those are.”

Reporter Stephanie Salmons contributed to this report.

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Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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