UH could gain Mauna Kea oversight
By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Rob Perez
The University of Hawai'i, which has been widely criticized for mismanaging public lands it leases at Mauna Kea's summit, would be given regulatory oversight for that culturally sacred and environmentally significant site under bills moving through the state Legislature.
Critics say transferring such oversight to UH would be a huge mistake in light of the school's poor track record on Mauna Kea and the dangerous precedent the action would set, essentially turning over responsibility for the land to its leaseholder or developer.
"This is a very, very bad idea," said Marti Townsend, program director of Kahea, a Hawaiian environmental alliance.
Two bills (HB 1174 and SB 502) giving UH authority over the 11,000-plus acres of ceded lands it leases from the Department of Land and Natural Resources have been approved by two committees each in the House and Senate, worrying environmentalists, Native Hawaiian groups and others.
The bills permit UH to regulate public and commercial uses of the land, and critics believe that authority would be broadly applied. Lawmakers call the legislation a "work in progress."
The leased property is in a conservation district on the Big Island summit, widely regarded as the best location for astronomical research in the world. Taking advantage of the 13,796-foot-high viewing pedestal, the school has overseen development over the past several decades of 13 telescope facilities, some of which are operated by foreign entities.
The projects have damaged parts of what is home to some of the world's rarest plants and insects and one of the most culturally sacred spots in the state for many Native Hawaiians.
Multiple reports in recent years have confirmed that telescope construction has come at the expense of natural and cultural resources atop Mauna Kea. In 2005, for instance, a court-ordered federal environmental impact statement found that the effects from the telescope developments have been significant and adverse. Two state auditor reports likewise identified shortcomings in the protection of the summit's natural resources, though the latest report, in 2005, noted some improvements.
"The keys to the kingdom should not now be given to an institution that has a 30-year proven track record of failure," Robert Harris, director of the Sierra Club's Hawai'i chapter, said in written testimony.
While the university believes it already has implied authority via the lease to adopt rules for the land, UH-Hilo Chancellor Rose Tseng said in written testimony to the Legislature that UH is seeking specific authority so it can better manage how Mauna Kea is used by researchers, cultural practitioners, tourists, recreational enthusiasts and others and to protect the unique cultural and natural resources.
UH representatives acknowledged to lawmakers that the school's past management of Mauna Kea had been problematic.
Ted Liu, director of the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, said in written testimony that the legislation would help ensure Hawai'i's continued role as a global leader in astronomical research.
UH has submitted a proposed summit management plan to DLNR, but that also is under fire by critics. The plan, for instance, would limit public access generally to daylight hours and would allow UH to install a gate on the road leading to the summit.
"The UH has no right to create a gated community for astronomers on the public's sacred summit," said Kealoha Pisciotta, one of several plaintiffs who sued DLNR's board and UH over management of Mauna Kea.
A state judge in that case ruled in 2007 that any additional Mauna Kea development cannot happen until a comprehensive management plan is drafted and approved by the DLNR board.
The UH proposal would not meet that requirement, Pisciotta and others say, because the land board, the overseer of all public-trust lands for the state, basically would be abdicating its statutory and constitutional oversight duty. The Hawai'i Supreme Court, in another case, already has deemed such an approach invalid, Pisciotta said.
DLNR has not submitted testimony for either of the bills. But Deborah Ward, a department spokeswoman, said the agency still would retain regulatory authority over the leased property for the purposes of assuring compliance with conservation-land laws. That oversight, she said, would include having final say on future telescope projects.
It would not include regulating "transient" uses at the summit, such as weddings, winter sports activities or ecotourism, Ward said.
Among opponents to the legislation is the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which said the university historically has mismanaged the mountain. It also said the school is not charging fair market value to various telescope operators using the ceded land.
UH pays DLNR $1 a year to lease the property, then accepts use of telescope time instead of rent payments from the facilities' operators, according to OHA testimony.
In essence, Hawai'i taxpayers are subsidizing foreign organizations using sacred public land, and the state is forgoing needed revenue while facing a serious budget deficit, opponents say.
Reach Rob Perez at firstname.lastname@example.org.