By Debbie Ward
Sierra Club members have long regarded the wild beauty, Pacific-wide view planes and cultural significance of Mauna Kea as one of the treasures Hawai`i must strive to protect. So, when the University requested a lease to build one telescope in the 60s, and then built five more without permits, our members joined hundreds at DLNR hearings in the early 80s to ask for a halt to telescope construction and a plan to manage the summit reserve. Hawaiian cultural practitioners pleaded with the Board to prevent further cultural and archaeological damage to the sacred summit of Kukahauula, the Pacific’s highest peak.
Instead, the BLNR allowed a limit on construction to eleven major and two minor telescopes, and approved a management plan with conditions that included baseline biological surveys and monitoring. The University did not conduct the surveys and monitoring, nor did it follow the conditions to protect the resources. The most recent construction included a single telescope with twenty-four viewing units, including one emplaced on the side of Pu`u Poliahu, a particularly sacred site near the summit.
When the UH Institute for Astronomy, representing NASA and the University of California, came to DLNR with a request for further expansion, beyond the limits established by the Board, and without a management plan, Sierra Club members stepped up to ask for a contested case hearing. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) also stepped up, and prevailed in Federal court, leading to the completion of the first environmental impact statement ever conducted in this sensitive habitat. The EIS found that In conclusion, the overall cumulative impact of past, present and reasonable foreseeable activities is substantial, adverse and significant. Despite the cumulative damage already inflicted on the natural and cultural resources of the summit, the BLNR ignored both this finding and its own administrative procedures, allowing plans for constructing four to six more telescopes to proceed. Sierra Club, in association with Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, and Royal Order of Kamehameha I, together with Clarence Ching, a cultural practitioner, appealed the decision in the First Circuit Court in June. The judge has not yet rendered an opinion, but in early February NASA announced budget cuts that could mark the end of efforts to expand the Keck telescopes.
On the legislative front, in 2005 Sierra Club called for an audit of the management of Mauna Kea, and the Legislative Auditor’s report, released in December, concurred with our assertion that Mauna Kea’s fragile natural and cultural resources demand responsible stewardship by the University; and that improvements in management do not go far enough. The auditor found that it is essential that UH prepare a comprehensive natural and cultural resources management plan to establish a baseline of information and provide guidance toward protecting and enhancing critical habitats and sensitive cultural resources.
Further, we are calling for a financial audit of UH’s astronomy partners (including foreign and multinational subleases), who pay at most a nominal one dollar ($1.00) per year for the use of ceded land in the Conservation District. We believe that the University’s and BLNR’s negligence has caused serious deterioration of the summit wild natural habitats, and adequate funding is required to address thirty years of abuse and expansion of protections.
We are also asking the Legislature to consider the formation of an Independent Community Based Management Authority for the purpose of overseeing all aspects of the management of Mauna Kea, including protection of the Conservation District and further development. This body should include community representatives (i.e., recreational users, environmental and Native Hawaiian representatives chosen by the Hawai`i Island community) empowered to vote and fully participate in the decision-making process. The Authority should include respective government agencies responsible for protection of conservation districts and resources, as well as University representatives.
Thanks to a generous grant our hui was able to hire planners from the University of California at Berkeley to provide the decision makers with a professional assessment of the current situation, including the status of the baseline studies of all flora, fauna, hydrology and more. We hope that, in this way, we can clarify for all concerned parties the current status of the ecosystem, sacred landscape, conditions and use. We hope to soon present their preliminary data and findings.
If you would like to continue to be appraised of the legislative action, or would like further information about the Club’s position, please contact Debbie Ward, MLG ExCom Vice-Chair and Mauna Kea Issues Committee Co-Chair (966-7361) or at email@example.com.