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Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki calls for UH to be replaced as Mauna Kea manager

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                House Speaker Scott K. Saiki today addressed the House chamber in Honolulu.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    House Speaker Scott K. Saiki today addressed the House chamber in Honolulu.

In a speech calling for islandwide unity, House Speaker Scott Saiki on Tuesday said the University of Hawaii needs to stop pursuing a new management lease for Mauna Kea, the site of mass protests and arrests over the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope.

Saiki, who continues to support TMT, said he hopes that a House resolution will lead to a new, unspecified management structure that would give Native Hawaiians a literal seat at the table for how to manage Hawaii island’s Mauna Kea.

“As you know, the University of Hawaii has held the master lease to manage the Mauna Kea Astronomy Precinct and the Natural and Cultural Preservation Area since 1968,” Saiki told his fellow House members. “The master lease is set to expire in 2033, and the university is currently working to extend it. The university has tried its best to manage Mauna Kea, but for too long the university’s work has been shrouded by its inability to appropriately manage cultural practices, resources and education. This is why the University of Hawaii must no longer manage Mauna Kea, and it should cease its work to extend the master lease. The House will introduce a resolution to begin the process of reassessing a new governance structure for Mauna Kea. And we will invite Ku Kia‘i Maunakea to have a seat at the table and be a part of the discussion. Mauna Kea is a manifestation of what happens when we draw lines, work in silos and disregard different views.”

The Thirty Meter Telescope would join 13 existing observatories atop Hawaii island, and critics say it would further desecrate land considered sacred by many Native Hawaiians.

UH has committed to removing five telescopes by the time TMT is operating. The removal of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and the Hoku Keʻa Telescope are underway, a process that’s scheduled to be completed by 2023.

Healani Sonoda-Pale, chairwoman of the Ka Lahui Hawaii political action committee, was skeptical of Saiki’s proposal.

Last year lawmakers looked at creating a blue- ribbon panel for Mauna Kea. In 2018 they considered a Mauna Kea Management Authority.

“It’s not working,” Sonoda-Pale said. “The bin of dead Mauna Kea bills is getting full.”

Both Sonoda-Pale and Mauna Kea Hui leader Kea­loha Pisciotta said the latest reform effort sounds like a desperate attempt to save the embattled Thirty Meter Telescope.

Pisciotta has led the opposition to TMT in court and said that if the Legislature wants to support the community’s wishes, it should back bills in both houses this year that call for no more development atop the mountain.

“As long as further development is on the table, there’s nothing else to talk about,” Pisciotta said.

Asked by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser why changing Mauna Kea’s management was important during a legislative session focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, the statewide response and an economic crisis, Saiki said resolving issues atop Mauna Kea is a way to restart the island economy while helping to ease divisions.

Greg Chun, UH director of Mauna Kea stewardship, said the university is preparing to apply for a new lease after its current one expires in 2033, a process that will require the preparation of an environmental impact statement that has so far not cost the university any money.

UH instead has been focusing on reworking its Mauna Kea master plan, a comprehensive management plan and decommissioning telescopes.

Chun said UH welcomes “different voices” to be involved in decision-making but that changing Mauna Kea’s management raises issues, such as, “What is the state’s commitment to astronomy?”

And changing the management structure could be a concern for officials interested in future projects.

“They want to know, they need to know, who they would be dealing with,” Chun said.

Uncertainty, he said, “creates an added risk to them.”

Chun said that any entity responsible for managing large parcels of land in Hawaii “can always do better. But I don’t think those challenges are unique to the University of Hawaii.”

The state Intermediate Court of Appeals last week issued an opinion affirming that Hawaii County Police Chief Paul Ferreira was within his authority when he requested assistance from other county police departments during the 2019 TMT protests, The Associated Press reported.

The appellate court’s opinion said officers from the Honolulu and Maui police departments who were at demonstrations along Daniel K. Inouye Highway, which leads to the access road to Mauna Kea’s summit, did not violate Hawaii statutes regarding police pursuing investigations in other counties, according to the AP.

Correction: The original version of this story should have noted that the University of Hawaii has committed to removing five telescopes by the time TMT is operating. The removal of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and the Hoku Keʻa Telescope are underway, a process that’s of scheduled to be completed by 2023.
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