Maunakea’s Own Authority

In this series of posts, we sit down with a few of the keynote speakers of the 241st AAS meeting to learn more about them and their research. You can see a full schedule of their talks here, and read our other interviews here!

A Complicated History 

Well before the advent of modern astronomy in Hawai`i, the ~13,800 feet-high summit of Maunakea was, and continues to be, an extremely sacred location for native Hawaiians. According to executive director of the Lālākea Foundation, Dr. Noe Wong-Wilson, native Hawaiians believe that the summit of Maunakea is “where the Earth Mother, or Papa, meets the Sky Father, Wākea” and is the origin of the native Hawaiian cosmology and cultural chants. However, the deep cultural significance of Maunakea to native Hawaiians has long been neglected by settler colonialism efforts. Presently, the Maunakea summit hosts 13 telescopes, including Keck and Gemini telescopes which are the most powerful astronomical instruments in the world, and remains the best location on Earth for observing astrophysical objects. 

In this bite, we present an update on management of Maunakea (see past astrobites from 2018 and 2019) since the protests of 2019 surrounding the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). This article serves as a supplement to future interview-style Astrobites focused on members of the new Maunakea Authority who are also keynote speakers at next week’s AAS meeting. 

2019 – Now: What’s New?

Starting in 2014, the proposed creation of the TMT ignited a series of protests by native Hawaiians who strongly opposed the construction of what would be the largest telescope in the world. The most recent protest in summer 2019 lasted for 9 months and involved the arrest of 38 kia’i elders (including Dr. Wong-Wilson) who, along with hundreds of other Hawaiians, had formed a blockade of the Maunakea access road. However, despite plans for a long-term encampment to protest the TMT, the COVID-19 pandemic forced an end to the blockade by March 2020. While this disruption was unfortunate given the momentum of the protests, many felt that the pandemic provided a much needed “cooling off period” where the future of astronomy on Maunakea could be re-assessed. 

Following the end of the TMT protests, the state of Hawai`i mandated a 3rd-party review be made of the Maunakea management, which has been administered by the University of Hawai`i (UH) since the first ~11,000 acres lease was granted in 1968. After extensive interviews with both native Hawaiians and members of the astronomy community, the independent review concluded that while the management of Maunakea is one of the best managed public lands in Hawai`i, there were also shortcomings about lack of genuine consultation with native community by UH. For example, the review found that “…members of the native Hawaiian community, both those who oppose and those who support UH management of Maunakea, were not consulted on matters related to cultural and resource issues…” and that “many native Hawaiians on Hawai`i island feel disengaged and disrespected; in particular there’s an absence of genuine consultation with the native Hawaiian community that has resulted in a greater mistrust of UH.” 

The findings by the independent review were significant enough to prompt the creation of a Maunakea working group in March 2021. The working group assessed the findings of the 3rd-party review as well as the recommendations made by the Astro 2020 decadal survey in Fall 2021 on astronomy at Maunakea. The primary result of the working group was a recommendation to the state that management of Maunakea no longer be by UH and resulted in the passing of Act 255 in July 2022, which created the Maunakea Stewardship and Oversight Authority (MKSOA). Most significantly, Act 255 declared astronomy to be a policy (i.e., priority) of the state and initiated the transition of management from UH to MKSOA by 2028; there will be a moratorium on new Maunakea leases until after transition. 

The MKSOA is comprised on 11 voting members, 8 of which were nominated by former Governor of Hawai`i, David Ige, and 3 which are ex-officio members as shown below:

1.) Kamanamaikalani Beamer (experience in land-based management) 

2.) Gary Krug (experience in public education) 

3.) Rich Matsuda (associate director of external relations at the W. M. Keck Obs.)

4.) John Komeiji (chair of Authority; lawyer)

5.) Pomaikai Bertelmann (practitioner of Native Hawaiian traditional practices)

6.) Josua Mangauil (practitioner of Native Hawaiian traditional practices)

7.) Paul Horner (CEO of Hawai`i public access TV channel

8.) Michelle “Noe Noe” Wong-Wilson (executive director of Lālākea Foundation

9.) Douglass Shipman Adams (ex-officio; designee by mayor of the County of Hawaiʻi)

10.) Eugene Bal III (ex-officio; designee by UH board of regent) 

11.) Bonnie Irwin (ex-officio; Chancellor of UH)

Next Steps

Senate confirmations of nominated Authority members will begin in the coming months and constructing the MKSOA as a formal “body corporate” will be an instrumental first step in ensuring its long-term success. Despite the growing concern surrounding the future of astronomy on Maunakea, the creation of the MKSOA is especially monumental because “this new act is the first time that native Hawaiians, cultural practitioners, and the community really have an opportunity to sit at the decision-making table and help to govern [Maunakea],” Authority member Dr. Wong-Wilson concisely states. 

Given that the primary power of the MKSOA will involve land disposition (i.e., ability to grant leases), the fate of many observatories on Maunakea will be decided by this new Authority. For example, the W.M. Keck Observatory’s current lease extends to 2033 but will most likely evolve significantly if it is granted a new lease e.g., larger lease payments and a stricter contractual obligation that Keck brings benefit to the local community. The MKSOA will also oversee the decommissioning of telescopes such as the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and UH Hōkū Kea Telescope, both happening early this year. 

And so, with this change of Maunakea management, the future of astronomy in Hawai`i is as much bright as it is uncertain; the MKSOA represents a pivotal move towards reconnecting astronomers and native Hawaiians that will serve as an indelible model for how science engages with indigenous communities, both in astronomy and beyond. 

To hear more from members of the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority, please come to the AAS241 plenary discussion on Monday, January 9th 3:40am-4:30 pm PDT

Edited by: Huei Sears

Featured Image Credit: AAS

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