Senator questions scope of new authority’s stewardship over volcano

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald State Sen. Lorraine Inouye gives a thumbs-up during her watch party for the Senate District 1 race at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel.

The jurisdiction of the newly formed Maunakea Stewardship and Oversight Authority is being challenged by a bill in the state Legislature.

Senate Bill 81, introduced by Hilo Sen. Lorraine Inouye, adds only a single sentence to the state statutes, but that sentence would explicitly allow the Board of Land and Natural Resources to supersede the power of the Authority, a state agency formed last year to eventually take over management of Maunakea’s summit lands from the University of Hawaii.


Inouye was one of only a handful of lawmakers to vote against House Bill 2024, the 2022 measure that formed the Authority, and last week said she considered that bill to have been “flawed.” SB 81 is her attempt to correct what she sees as a potentially large error in forming the Authority.

That error, Inouye explained, is one of language: While HB 2024 established that the Authority will take over UH’s management of the mountain in five years, it uses only vague terms to describe its jurisdiction. The bill uses terms such as “Maunakea lands,” which it defines as “lands under the state lease.”

“My question was, is it just the 11,000-acre (Maunakea Science Reserve) parcel at the summit, or is it more than that?” Inouye said. “Almost the entire mountain is within the state conservation district. Does the Authority have jurisdiction over all of it? Based on how I read that bill, it does.”

During a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Water and Land Committee, BLNR Chair Dawn Chang said the intent of HB 2024 was that the Authority would take over management of the Maunakea Science Reserve, within which the Maunakea Observatories are located. Currently, that land is leased to the University of Hawaii, which also manages a 19-acre parcel halfway up the mountain containing the midlevel facility at Halepohaku.

The land surrounding the science reserve is managed by the DLNR as conservation land, while the Maunakea Access Road is managed by the Department of Transportation. Roughly 56,000 acres along the mountain’s northeastern slopes, and around where the access road meets the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, is managed by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

But because most of that land is zoned as part of the state conservation district, Inouye said HB 2024 could be interpreted to grant the Authority power over it all.

Inouye said it is in the best interests of all parties involved — from the BLNR and the Authority to Big Island residents in general — for the BLNR to retain control over the greater Maunakea conservation lands for reasons she said were self-evident.

“We just had an eruption (of Mauna Loa),” Inouye said. “We know the lava was heading toward Pohakuloa Training Area. We know it was heading toward the highway. Do we really want an agency that doesn’t have enforcement authority to deal with a disaster like that?”

John Komeiji, the interim chair of the Authority, testified during Wednesday’s hearing and agreed with the intent behind SB 81, but requested that the Legislature give the Authority time to get properly set up. He said the Authority’s board still hasn’t hired its first employees yet.

But Chang said that while the fledgling Authority begins the process of transitioning management duties from UH, the mountain still needs to be managed, and specifically referenced the decommissioning of UH’s Hoku Ke‘a telescope.

“Given the realities that the authority does not have the capacity to do that, DLNR wanted to make sure there were no pukas in enforcement or in compliance with the management plan,” Chang said.

Chang implied SB 81 would serve as an interim measure until the Authority takes over management in 2028, but so far no language in the bill allows for that.

Oahu Sen. Kurt Fevella was skeptical of the measure, fearing that it represented a sign of things to come.

“The reason why I have a problem with this bill is that … year after year, you guys are going to be picking at the Authority,” Fevella said. “Because not everyone in this building was for the Authority. But I was … and here we are one year later, not giving them a chance.”

Three members of the public submitted written testimony echoing Fevella’s position.

“The Board of Land and Natural Resources has continued to be irresponsible land stewards for Hawaii,” wrote Crystal Kia Paul. “The agreements the previous boards have made negatively impact the people who have maintained kuleana to Maunakea, as well as Native Hawaiians. I ask that you defer this bill until you can have better accountability of BLNR and their practices.”

Nonetheless, the committee voted to recommend the measure’s passage, although not unanimously: Fevella voted in opposition.

The bill will next go before the Senate Judiciary Committee, although it has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Email Michael Brestovansky at

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