This Friday the state Land Board and its chairman, William Aila, will consider approving California’s Thirty Meter Telescope at a meeting that will signal whether the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ decades of Mauna Kea mismanagement are over — or not.
A 1998 legislative audit lambasted DLNR and the University of Hawaii for their joint summit management — with its harshest criticism laid on DLNR for failing to protect Mauna Kea’s unique cultural and natural resources. The list of specific DLNR failures was breathtaking, and the auditor concluded that DLNR, along with UH, had "failed to develop and implement adequate controls to balance the environmental concerns with astronomy development."
A follow-up audit in 2005 found that many of those problems still existed and that DLNR "has passively allowed the university to fulfill the department’s role as landowner," a problem that’s continued right up until today. The auditor criticized the "lax attitude" with which DLNR views its own management plans, monitoring and enforcement efforts as "subordinate to what the lessee" — the university — does.
The audits didn’t surprise me. As an early tour guide for the observatories (and because I had a professional background in environmental policy), my boss had asked me to write a review of the DLNR and UH planning documents governing the summit science reserve. Even back then — a decade before the first audit — the inadequacies of the joint DLNR-UH management arrangement were apparent, and clearly meant to serve primarily astronomy interests.
How could the Land Board and DLNR staff have acted so feebly? Had they simply misunderstood the planning and management issues for which they were responsible? Or had undue pressure been placed on them by ambitious UH officials, overbearing DLNR directors or certain influential Land Board members? Or had pressure come from Hawaii’s congressional delegation, governor or construction industry?
Whatever the cause, this is a new time, with a new governor and DLNR chief and a changed political climate in which conscientious public servants can do much to improve the operation and reputation of DLNR. The agency should now reassert its proper regulatory role and finally protect Mauna Kea — as the auditor had urged.
Unfortunately, some recent false steps have already been taken. In 2009 the Land Board accepted an inadequate comprehensive management plan written by UH instead of DLNR. It also has failed to require the TMT Corp. to submit a federal environmental impact statement, despite the millions in government funding it’s received from the National Science Foundation.
Mauna Kea’s summit is a conservation district that DLNR is charged to protect, not an enterprise zone to satisfy construction industry needs and the Chamber of Commerce.
In its recent report to the Land Board endorsing TMT’s permit, the DLNR staff asserted that this huge industrial project in the conservation district is not only appropriate but desirable and, amazingly, concluded that the 18-story building with its parking lot, roads and utilities "will not have a significant impact on the environmental or cultural characteristics of the land." It also mischaracterized the 1998 audit as criticizing only UH, despite its tough rebuke of DLNR.
Despite these recent actions, reminiscent of past mismanagement, the new director and the Land Board have an opportunity Friday to start changing course — by rejecting TMT’s permit application. This would send a clear message to islanders that DLNR now works for them.
Editor’s note: The state Land Board meeting, which includes action on the Thirty Meter Telescope, will be at 9 a.m. Friday at the Kalanimoku Building on Punchbowl.