Hawaii seeks an end to the fight for astronomy on the sacred mountain
For more than 50 years, telescopes and the needs of astronomers have dominated the top of Mauna Kea, a mountain sacred to Native Hawaiians that is also one of the best places in the world to study the night sky. That’s changing now with a new state law that says 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 administrators as they do now. The change comes after thousands of protesters camped out on the mountain three years ago to block construction of a state-of-the-art observatory, making politicians and astronomers realize the status quo had to change.
The stakes are high: Native Hawaiian defenders want to protect a site of great spiritual importance. The astronomers hope to be able to renew the state land leases below their observatories, which expire in 11 years, and continue to make groundbreaking scientific discoveries for decades to come. Business and political 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 authority may offer a first-in-the-world test case for whether astronomers can find a way to respectfully and responsibly study the universe from indigenous and culturally significant lands. “We have been here for centuries. We have not left; We are still here. And we know that it would produce a workable management solution that would be more inclusive,” said Shane Palacat-Nelson, a native Hawaiian who helped write a report that laid the groundwork for the new law.
Its dozen huge telescopes have played a key role in advancing humanity’s understanding of the universe, including taking 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 have increasingly bothered to the native Hawaiians who view the place as 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 $2.65 Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT. billion, backed by the University of California. and other institutions. Law enforcement arrested 38 elderly, mostly Native Hawaiians, drawing more protesters.
Police withdrew months after TMT said it would not go ahead with construction immediately. The protesters stayed where they were but closed the camp in March 2020 amid concerns about COVID-19. The episode pushed lawmakers to seek a new approach. The result is the new governing body, the Mauna Kea Management and Monitoring Authority, which will have an 11-member voting board. The governor will appoint eight. Governor David Ige has not set a date to announce his nominees, who will appear before the state Senate for confirmation. He said more than 30 have applied.
Palacat-Nelsen said traditional knowledge of Native Hawaiians could help the authority determine how big the footprint of man-made structures, such as telescopes, should be on the summit. “Did we take difficult measures? Do we take light steps? When do we take the steps? At what stations do we take steps? Palacat-Nelsen said. “All of that kind of knowledge is embedded in most of our stories, our traditional stories that were passed down.” The board will have this experience because a member of the authority must be a recognized practitioner of Native Hawaiian culture and another direct descendant. from a native Hawaiian practitioner of the Mauna Kea traditions.
Lawmakers drafted the law after a task force of Native Hawaiian cultural experts, protesters, observatory workers and state officials met to discuss Mauna Kea. His report, which devoted a large part to the historical and cultural importance of the mountain, formed the basis of the new law. Several Kia’i who served on that task force support the authority. The Speaker of the House appointed a Kia’i leader to the board. But some longtime opponents of the telescopes are critical, raising questions about how broad community support for the authority will be.
Kealoha Pisciotta, who has been part of the legal challenges against TMT and other observatory proposals since 1998, said Native Hawaiians should have, at a minimum, equal standing on the board. “You have no real voice. It is designed to create the illusion of having consent and representation in a situation where we really don’t,” said Pisciotta, spokesperson for the Mauna Kea Hui and Mauna Kea Aina Hou groups.
Lawmakers said pressure to address the Hawaii telescope standoff is not just coming from the state, but also from the U.S. astronomical community. State Rep. David Tarnas pointed to a report by a committee of astronomers from across the country stating that there is a need to develop a new model of collaborative decision-making together with indigenous and local communities. “This is not just the Big Island problem, it’s not just a state problem, but I think it’s a global problem,” said state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim. “I think the world is watching to see how we deal with this.”
Meanwhile, the TMT issue remains unresolved: its backers still want to build on Mauna Kea, although they have selected a site in Spain’s Canary Islands as backup. The head of the astronomy program at the University of Hawaii said the authority could help his own institution by “stabilizing the whole situation” for Mauna Kea astronomy. But Doug Simons said he is concerned the authority won’t get up and running in time to renew the summit’s master lease and subleases.
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 authorize an extension. Simons said it will take at least five to six years to dismantle the telescopes and associated infrastructure. That means new lease agreements must be in place by 2027 or the observatories will have to start closing. “There’s no obvious way around this,” Simons said. He said he is 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 was part of the task force, urged prospective board members to avoid being “stakeholders with narrow interests just trying to make sure they get their share of the pie.” Tensions over the construction of the telescope, he said, caused people to shut down and avoid discussing difficult topics related to Mauna Kea. The new mountain welfare law’s prioritization may alter that, he said. “My hope is that this gives us the opportunity, if we do it right, to change that dynamic,” Matsuda said.