Hawaii seeks end to dispute over astronomy on sacred mountain Mauna Kea
The sun sets behind telescopes atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii on July 14, 2019. For over 50 years, telescopes have dominated the summit of Mauna Kea, a site sacred to Native Hawaiians and one of the best places in the world to study the night sky. (Caleb Jones, Associated Press)
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HONOLULU – For more than 50 years, telescopes and the needs of astronomers have dominated the summit of Mauna Kea, a mountain sacred to Native Hawaiians. It’s also one of the best places in the world to study the night sky.
That’s all changing now with a new state law that says Mauna Kea must be protected for future generations and that science must be balanced with culture and the environment. Native Hawaiian cultural experts will have voting seats on a new governing body, rather than just advising the summit’s managers as they do now.
The shift comes after thousands of protesters camped on the mountain three years ago to block construction of a state-of-the-art observatory, leading policymakers and astronomers to realize the status quo needed to change.
The stakes are high as Native Hawaiians seek to protect a site of great spiritual importance. Astronomers hope they can renew 11-year-old state-owned land leases under their observatories and continue making revolutionary scientific discoveries for decades to come. Business and government leaders are eager for astronomy to support high-paying jobs in a state that has long struggled to diversify its tourism-dependent economy.
To top it off, the new agency could offer a world-first test case for whether astronomers can find a way to respectfully and responsibly study the universe from indigenous and culturally significant countries.
“We have been here for centuries. We’re not gone, we’re still here. And we have knowledge that would lead to a viable management solution that would be more comprehensive,” said Shane Palacat-Nelson, a native Hawaiian who helped draft a report that laid the groundwork for the new law.
It’s about the summit of Mauna Kea, which is 13,803 feet above sea level. In 1968, the state leased the University of Hawaii for 65 years on land that the school subleased to leading global research institutions in exchange for a portion of observing time.
Astronomers like Mauna Kea’s summit because its clear skies, dry air, and low light pollution make it the best place to study space from the northern hemisphere. Its dozens of massive telescopes have played a key role in advancing human understanding of the universe, including some of the first images of planets outside our solar system. Astronomer Andrea Ghez used one to prove the existence of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, for which she received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics.
But the telescopes have also changed the landscape of the peaks, increasingly angering native Hawaiians who consider the site sacred. The 2019 protests by people calling themselves “kia’i,” or protectors of the mountain, aimed to halt construction of the largest and most advanced observatory to date: the $2.65 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT ), which is supported by the University of California and other institutions.
Law enforcement arrested 38 elders, mostly local Hawaiians, which only drew more protesters. Police withdrew months later after TMT said it would not move forward with construction immediately. The protesters remained in place but closed the camp in March 2020 due to concerns about COVID-19.
The episode prompted lawmakers to seek a new approach.
The result is the new governing body, the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority, which will have a Board of Directors with 11 voting members. The governor will appoint eight. Gov. David Ige has not set a date for announcing his candidates, who will go before the Senate for confirmation. He said more than 30 applied.
Palacat-Nelsen said traditional Native Hawaiian knowledge can help the agency determine how large the footprint of man-made structures like telescopes should be at the summit.
“Are we taking heavy steps? Are we taking easy steps? When do we take steps? said Palacat-Nelsen. “All that kind of knowledge is embedded in most of our stories, our traditional stories that have been passed down.”
It’s not just the Big Island problem, it’s not just a state problem, I think it’s a global problem. I think the world is watching how we deal with it.
-Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, Hawaii State Senator
The board has this expertise because one member of the agency must be a recognized practitioner of Native Hawaiian culture and another must be a direct descendant of a Hawaiian Native who practices the traditions of Mauna Kea.
Central to the Native Hawaiian view of Mauna Kea is the idea that the peak is where gods are allowed to dwell and humans are not allowed to live. A centuries-old chant holds that the mountain is the eldest child of Wakea and Papawalinu’u, the male and female sources of all life. To this day, the mountain attracts clouds and rain, which nourishes forests and freshwater for communities on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Lawmakers drafted the law after a working group of native Hawaiian cultural experts, protesters, observatory employees and state officials met to discuss Mauna Kea. Their report, which devoted a large part to the historical and cultural significance of the mountain, formed the basis of the new law.
Several Kia’i who served on this working group support the authority. The Speaker of the House of Representatives has nominated a Kia’i leader for the board.
However, some longtime opponents of the telescope are critical, raising questions about how broad community support the agency will have.
Kealoha Pisciotta, who has been involved in legal challenges to the Thirty-Meter Telescope and other observatory proposals since 1998, said Native Hawaiians should have at least equal rights on the board.
“They don’t really have a say. It’s meant to create the illusion of having consent and representation in a situation where we really don’t,” said Pisciotta, a spokesman for the groups Mauna Kea Hui and Mauna Kea Aina Hou.
Lawmakers said pressure to tackle Hawaii’s telescope patch was coming not only from within the state but also from the US astronomy community.
State MP David Tarnas referred to a report by a committee of astronomers from across the country that said there was a need to develop a new model of collaborative decision-making with indigenous and local communities.
“This is not just a Big Island problem, it’s not just a state problem, but I believe it’s a global problem,” said Senator Donna Mercado Kim. “I think the world is watching how we deal with it.”
The new telescope problem, meanwhile, remains unsolved: its supporters still want to build on Mauna Kea, although they have chosen a site in Spain’s Canary Islands as a replacement.
The head of the University of Hawaii’s astronomy program said the agency could help his own institution by stabilizing “the whole situation” for astronomy on Mauna Kea.
But Doug Simons said he was concerned the agency might not be up and running in time to renew the Summit master lease and subleases.
The main lease provides that all existing telescopes will be decommissioned and their sites restored to their original condition by 2033 unless the state approves an extension.
Simons said it will take at least five or six years to dismantle the telescopes and associated infrastructure. That means new leases need to be ready by 2027 or observatories need to start processing.
“There’s no obvious way out,” Simons said. He said he is urging the agency to be established as soon as possible to maximize time for negotiations and any inevitable legal challenges.
Rich Matsuda, who works for the WM Keck Observatory and was a member of the working group, urged the future board members to “avoid stakeholders with narrow interests who are just trying to make sure they get their piece of the pie.”
Tensions over telescope construction, he said, caused people to lock down and avoid discussing difficult issues surrounding Mauna Kea. The new law’s prioritization of the well-being of the mountain could change that, he said.
“I hope this gives us a chance to change that dynamic if we get it right,” Matsuda said.
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