Hawaiian law could break years-long astronomy impasse
The State of Hawaii has implemented a new way of managing Maunakea Mountain, the summit of which is home to many world-class astronomical observatories. A law signed by Hawaii’s governor on July 7 removes the University of Hawaii from its role as the primary authority overseeing the lands on which the telescopes are located and hands that responsibility over to a newly created group with much broader representation of the community, including Native Hawaiians. .
Many hope the change will mark a way forward for astronomy in Hawaii, after a years-long impasse over the future of telescopes at Maunakea. Since 2015, some Native Hawaiians have intermittently blocked the road to the summit, primarily to prevent the start of construction on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) – a next-generation observatory that will have a huge light-gathering mirror to make astronomical discoveries. The sit-ins have sparked wide-ranging discussions about the rights of indigenous peoples to have a say in the management of lands that are sacred to them but have been used for purposes including science.
The new Maunakea Authority will include Native Hawaiians in decisions about mountain management, with an emphasis on mutual stewardship and the protection of Maunakea for generations to come. The authority will have 11 voting members, one of whom must be an active practitioner of Native Hawaiian cultural traditions and one of whom must be a descendant of a cultural practitioner associated with Maunakea. There are also places for representatives from astronomy, education, land management, politics and other fields.
“I have great hopes for the new entity,” says Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a former Native Hawaiian who helped run roadblocks on the mountain. “It’s beyond my imagination to know where we would be right now because we’ve fought so long to be heard.”
The University of Hawaii has managed most of the land around Maunakea’s summit since 1968, when the state granted it a 65-year lease to operate a science preserve focused on astronomy. Maunakea has an ideal sky for astronomical observation, given its 4,200 meters in elevation and its stable, dark night sky. The university must now transfer all of its management functions, including a complex set of subleases, permits and other agreements, to the new authority by July 1, 2028. says Doug Simons, director of the University Institute of Astronomy in Manoa, Hawaii.
A way forward
Maunakea is used for several purposes, including tourism, hunting, and environmental science, in addition to cultural practices and astronomy. It currently houses 13 observatories, two of which are being dismantled to help reduce the impact on the mountain.
The new law grew out of a proposal by Scott Saiki, speaker of the state House of Representatives, which was intended to break the impasse around Maunakea. He created a task force that recommended changes in the management of Maunakea and led to the eventual plan to remove the University of Hawaii as lead manager.
The group was successful because it established a framework of mutual respect, says Rich Matsuda, associate director of external relations at the WM Keck Observatory in Waimea, Hawaii, who was a member. “Things have often been presented as culture versus science,” he says. “It’s kind of a false dichotomy and an offensive framing. Different knowledge systems and ways of seeing things need not be in opposition to each other.
The law states that astronomy is the policy of the State of Hawaii. “The state says astronomy is important to Hawaii and the state is invested in astronomy, but even more invested in the stewardship of Maunakea as a special place – that combination is absolutely essential to me” , says John O’Meara, chief scientist at Keck, which has two 10-meter telescopes atop Maunakea. “That’s a reason to be optimistic.”
The fate of a telescope
Many steps remain. The first is to identify the people who will make up Maunakea’s new management authority — they will likely be appointed by the governor — and then put it in place to take over all administrative and management duties overseen by the university. The state legislature will also have to provide funds to fund the group beyond the US$14 million allotted for its first year.
And then there is the question of the TMT. He has a permit to proceed with the construction but has not done so yet, given the tensions on the mountain. Last November, the project received a much-needed boost when the US Decade Survey of Funding Priorities in Astronomy and Astrophysics recommended that it proceed. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) is now considering funding the project, which does not have enough money to fully build the telescope with its partners in the US, China, Canada, India and the United States. Japan.
If the NSF decides to join the TMT, at an estimated cost of $800 million, at least a quarter of the telescope’s time would be open to observers from across the United States. It would also trigger a federal review of how construction of the telescope might affect Maunakea that would need to be completed before work could begin.
For Wong-Wilson, at least, the TMT discussion can go on for now. “There’s nothing on the table,” she said.