Hawaii seeks to end disputes over astronomy on sacred mountain

HONOLULU — For more than 50 years, telescopes and stargazers’ needs have dominated the summit of Mauna Kea, a mountain sacred to Native Hawaiians that’s also one of the best places in the world to study the night sky.

That is changing now with a new state law saying Mauna Kea must be protected for future generations and science must be balanced with culture and the environment. Native Hawaiian cultural experts will have voting seats on a new governing body, instead of simply advising summit officials as they currently do.

The change comes after thousands of protesters camped on the mountain three years ago to block construction of a state-of-the-art observatory, prompting policymakers and astronomers to realize the status quo had to change.

The stakes are high: Native Hawaiian defenders want to protect a site of great spiritual importance. Astronomers hope to be able to renew leases of state lands beneath their observatories, which are due to expire in 11 years, and continue to make groundbreaking scientific discoveries for decades to come. Business and political leaders want astronomy to support well-paying jobs in a state that has long struggled to diversify its tourism-dependent economy.

To top it all off, the new authority could offer the world’s first test case of whether astronomers can find a way to respectfully and responsibly study the universe from Indigenous and culturally significant lands.

“We’ve been here for centuries. We haven’t gone, we’re still here. And we have knowledge that would produce a workable management solution that would be more inclusive,” said Shane Palacat-Nelson, a Native Hawaiian who helped to write a report that laid the foundations for the new law.

At issue is the summit of Mauna Kea, which sits 13,803 feet (4,207 meters) above sea level. In 1968, the state granted the University of Hawaii a 65-year lease for land that the school sub-leases to leading global research institutions in exchange for a share of observing time.

Astronomers love the summit of Mauna Kea because its clear skies, dry air, and limited light pollution make it the best place to study space from the Northern Hemisphere. Its dozen or so enormous telescopes have played a key role in advancing mankind’s understanding of the universe, including making 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 shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics.

But the telescopes have also changed the landscape of the summit and increasingly upset Native Hawaiians who consider the place sacred. The 2019 protests by people calling themselves “kia’i,” or protectors of the mountain, were aimed at stopping construction of the largest and most advanced observatory yet: the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT. , $2.65 billion, backed by the University of California. and other establishments.

Law enforcement arrested 38 elders, mostly Native Hawaiians, which only drew more protesters. The police pulled out months later after TMT said it would not go ahead with construction just yet. Protesters stayed put but closed the camp in March 2020 amid concerns over 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 11 voting members. The governor will appoint eight. Governor David Ige has not set a date to announce his nominees, who will go to the state Senate for confirmation. He said more than 30 applied.

Palacat-Nelsen said traditional Native Hawaiian knowledge could help the authority determine how big of a footprint man-made structures like telescopes should have at the top.

“Are we stomping? Are we taking light steps? When do we take steps? In what seasons do we take steps? said Palacat-Nelsen. “All of this kind of knowledge is embedded in the majority of our stories, our traditional stories that have been passed down.”

The board will have this expertise because one authority member must be a recognized practitioner of Native Hawaiian culture and another a direct descendant of a Native Hawaiian practitioner of Mauna Kea traditions.

At the heart of the Native Hawaiian view of Mauna Kea is the idea that the summit is where the gods dwell and where humans are not allowed to live. A centuries-old chant says 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 precipitation that feed forests and freshwater to communities on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Lawmakers drafted the law after a task force of Native Hawaiian cultural experts, protesters, observatory workers and state officials met to discuss Mauna Kea. Their report, which devoted much of it to the historical and cultural significance of the mountain, formed the basis of the new law.

Several kia’i who have been part of this task force support the authority. The Speaker of the House appointed a Kia’i chief for the council.

But some longtime opponents of the telescope are critical, raising questions about the extent of community support for the authority.

Kealoha Pisciotta, who has been involved in legal challenges against TMT and other observatory proposals since 1998, said Native Hawaiians should at a minimum be given equal status on the board.

“You don’t really have a say. It’s designed to create the illusion of having consent and representation in a situation where we really don’t have any,” said Pisciotta, a spokesperson for the Mauna Kea Hui and Mauna Kea Aina Hou groups.

Lawmakers said the pressure to resolve the Hawaii telescope standoff came not just from within the state, but also from the U.S. astronomical community.

State Representative David Tarnas pointed to a report from a committee of astronomers from across the country stating that there was a need to develop a new model for collaborative decision-making with Indigenous and local communities.

“It’s not just the Big Island problem, it’s not just a state problem, but I believe it’s a global problem,” State Senator Donna Mercado Kim said. “I believe the world is watching to see how we handle this.”

The TMT case, meanwhile, remains unresolved: Its backers still want to rely on Mauna Kea, despite having chosen a site in Spain’s Canary Islands as a backup.

The head of the University of Hawaii’s astronomy program said the authority could help his own institution if it “stabilizes the whole situation” for Mauna Kea astronomy.

But Doug Simons said he was concerned the authority would not be up and running in time to renew the head lease and sub-leases at the summit.

The master lease requires that all existing telescopes be decommissioned and their sites restored to their original condition by 2033 if the state does not allow an expansion.

Simons said it would take at least five or six years to dismantle the telescopes and associated infrastructure. This means that new lease agreements must be ready by 2027 or the observatories will have to start winding down.

“There’s no obvious way around it,” Simons said. He said he was pushing for the authority to be established as soon as possible to maximize time for negotiations and the inevitable legal challenges.

Rich Matsuda, who works for the WM Keck Observatory and served on the task force, urged prospective board members to avoid being “narrow-interest stakeholders just trying to make sure that they get their piece of the pie”.

Tensions around the construction of the telescope, he said, caused people to go into lockdown and avoid discussing difficult issues surrounding Mauna Kea. The new law’s focus on mountain welfare could change that, he said.

“Hopefully it gives us a chance, if we do it right, to change that dynamic,” Matsuda said.

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