One of the most coveted and contested astronomical sites on the planet—the summit of Hawaii’s massive mountain Maunakea—will soon be governed by a new group of stewards comprising Native Hawaiians, cultural practitioners, and representatives of the state and other institutions.
On July 7 Governor David Ige signed into law HB2024—a bill mandating that control over the mountain’s summit be transferred from the University of Hawaii, which has held the master lease to those lands since 1968, to an 11-member “Mauna Kea stewardship and oversight authority.” It’s a shift many hope will pave a path through an anguished, long-simmering impasse that in the past few years has intensified and polarized astronomers and Native Hawaiians as never before.
“We have come from literally being arrested in July  on the mauna, on the mountain, to now, where House Bill 2024 provides seats at the decision-making table specifically for Native Hawaiians—and that, to me, is a huge shift,” says Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a Native Hawaiian activist and educator and a leader of a movement that aims to protect Maunakea.
And it’s a shift that, at least when it was first proposed, alarmed those fighting for a future for astronomy on the mauna’s summit. But some astronomers are now more optimistic and say the new legislation defines the right way forward.
“This is a really important opportunity to reset the dialogue around making things centered on the mauna, as opposed to centered around any one interest on the mauna,” says John O’Meara, chief scientist of the W. M. Keck Observatory. “It makes the situation less about an ‘us-versus-them’ narrative of astronomy and more about astronomy as part of mutual stewardship of Maunakea.”
Protectors versus Powers That Be
For years now, astronomers have been at odds with Native Hawaiians and others for whom Maunakea’s cinder-coned summit is more than just an ideal place for stargazing. At nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, the clear, still air over the peak contains roughly half as much observation-muddling water vapor as is found at lower altitudes, making the mountaintop arguably the premier ground-based observing site in the Northern Hemisphere. Some 13 telescopes are already etched onto Maunakea’s silhouette, providing astronomers with the means to study distant—sometimes hidden—planets, to make images of supermassive black holes and to study interstellar asteroids.
In 2019 resumed construction of one more telescope—the mammoth Thirty-Meter Telescope, or TMT—ignited a storm of protests that culminated in roadblocks, arrests and the establishment of a large, rain-lashed encampment near the summit access road.
“To me, the powers that be have been very anxious about increasing the opportunities for astronomical observation and research and very reticent about doing anything about the facilities whose time has passed,” Wong-Wilson says.
For her and the Maunakea kiaʻi,, the mountain’s self-appointed guardians or protectors, the 18-story, $2.4-billion TMT was one injury too many to their revered land. In Hawaiian cosmology, Maunakea isn’t just a sacred pinnacle—it’s the center of the entire universe. It’s the place where Earth Mother and Father Sky met, a home of the gods, the fount of existence. And it didn’t seem to Wong-Wilson as though anyone outside the Native Hawaiian community cared too much about honoring and taking care of such a sacred place.
“Oftentimes, we feel that we are instead looked upon as the bad guys. The uninformed. The local people who don’t really understand,” she told reporters during a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu in 2020.
In December 2019, amid the turmoil along the access road, the TMT board of governors voted to pause construction. By March 2020 the coronavirus pandemic had reached Hawaii, sweeping through local communities. The kiaʻi left, secure in the knowledge that, at least for the time being, the summit was safe from further development. They dismantled the encampment and rode out the pandemic beneath the mountain’s cloud-covered slopes.
“Hawaii-Style” Conflict Resolution
But the conflict’s embers were still smoldering. In early 2021 the Hawaii House of Representatives passed a resolution that created the Mauna Kea Working Group and challenged it with drafting alternatives to Maunakea’s existing management, which had been helmed by the University of Hawaii. Fifteen people, including Wong-Wilson and other representatives of the Native Hawaiian community, government officials, the University of Hawaii’s chancellor and Rich Matsuda, a representative of the Maunakea Observatories, were on the task force.
“We were reticent at first, unsure of the process,” Wong-Wilson says of herself and other Native Hawaiians. “But we decided it was important for the community and for the protectors to be present at the table. If you’re not, then other people make decisions.”
The working group met each week and wrestled with crafting a way forward in which multiple communities could have an equal say in the mountain’s future—whether hunters, environmentalists, astronomers, tour operators or cultural practitioners—both Native Hawaiian and not.
“We would respect each other’s positions, knowing that inevitably we wouldn’t agree on some things. And the way we went about that was real down-to-earth, local Hawaii-style, which was to talk about where we’re from, why we’re at this table, what our connection to Maunakea is, a little bit of family history, context about why we care so much,” says Matsuda, an engineer and external relations specialist, who has worked at the W. M. Keck Observatory for more than 28 years.
“And when we got to issues where we were deadlocked, we would talk about it and set it aside,” he continues. “Certain things never got into the report because we couldn’t agree on those things. But the amount of agreement was pretty cool and unexpected.”
In the end, the working group proposed that a new management authority would control access to Maunakea’s lands using a framework grounded in mutual stewardship and in the four kānāwai, or Native Hawaiian laws of nature and environmental kinship.
In January the report became the basis for HB2024. The bill was first introduced to Hawaii’s House of Representatives and then bounced back and forth between it and the state’s Senate—going through what Wong-Wilson describes as “a blender”—before being approved by a veto-proof majority in early May.
“The bill is not perfect. I think it lays down a good foundation, but there are things that need to get ironed out,” Matsuda says. “The mindset shift is one thing—and very hopeful and aspirational—and then there’s the reality of trying to stand up this authority and get it right.”
A Path Forward?
Matsuda, Wong-Wilson and others are hoping that the newly created management authority will provide a way forward for the different interests swirling around venerated, embattled Maunakea. As defined, the authority will operate under a paradigm of mutual stewardship, where no single interest supersedes the importance of the mountaintop as a whole.
“It changes from astronomy as the main focus of activity to the mountain as the main focus of care,” Wong-Wilson says. “And then all of the activities, including astronomy, have a place there.”
HB2024 also states that astronomy is a policy of the state of Hawaii—an addition that some hope will quell fears about the demise of astronomy on the mountain.
“This is a strong, good-faith effort to elevate both the importance of astronomy to Hawaii and, even more importantly, this idea of mutual stewardship of a sacred place,” O’Meara says. “It makes me believe again in the ability for people to have difficult discussions and come to a consensus around something. I’ve watched people on both sides of the argument really change their mind and embrace a different philosophy, and I count myself among them.”
An Extremely Large Elephant in the Room
HB2024 prioritizes preservation of untouched land over new development, citing a preference for reusing astronomical sites that already exist on the summit. It also reduces the guaranteed amount of observing time allotted to the University of Hawaii. But neither the legislation nor the working group’s report makes any statements about the number of facilities that might need to be decommissioned—or addresses the elephant in the room: the TMT.
And that was deliberate, Wong-Wilson says. “One of the agreements we made early in our discussion was that this was not going to be a forum on TMT, that it was going to be about taking care of mountain—and that TMT would enter the discussion at some point in the future,” she says.
The TMT project has identified a second site on La Palma, part of Spain’s Canary Islands, as its backup option—a site that’s not as ideal as Maunakea, politically or astronomically, but that would allow the U.S. Extremely Large Telescope Program to keep the northern sky in its sights. When contacted by Scientific American, Robert Kirshner, executive director of the TMT International Observatory (TIO), replied with the following statement:
TIO welcomes this community-based mutual stewardship model that includes Native Hawaiians in active roles in Maunakea’s management. We value the respect, responsibility, caring and inclusivity that this bill is intended to foster. We are grateful that support of astronomy is now a policy of the state. TIO will work with the new authority to advance programs that support astronomy and education and are in harmony with the culture and environment of this special site.
For now, “I don’t think standing up this new authority is going to resolve all the issues in terms of the division that came about due to TMT,” Matsuda says. “It’s not an answer for TMT, but it is a way of bringing all the people who care about Maunakea to the table.”
Over the next year, members of the stewardship and oversight authority will be appointed and confirmed. Starting in 2023 a five-year transition period will gradually shift control of the Maunakea summit away from the University of Hawaii. And finally, in 2028, the existing summit observatories can apply for new direct leases from the new authority.
That time line concerns astronomer Doug Simons, now at the University of Hawaii and former executive director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. According to the master lease issued in 1968, all existing facilities will need to be decommissioned by 2033 unless their leases are renewed—meaning that starting the lease application process in 2028 is putting them in a threatening time crunch.
“It’s very likely that each of those direct leases to each telescope will be subjected to a contested case,” Simons says, referring to the type of litigation that has held up the TMT for years. If those cases end up in the state’s supreme court, as TMT’s did, it’s possible the observatories won’t have new leases in time to avoid mandated decommissioning in 2033.
“Then we have an untenable situation in which we have telescopes that are basically being litigated off the mountain,” Simons says. “I’ve been working as hard or harder than almost anyone I know about trying to find a peaceful, long-term, collaborative solution to the Maunakea situation, but I have my redlines like everybody else, and the loss of a good chunk of Maunakea astronomy is a redline for me.”
O’Meara says he shares Simons’s concern about the lease renewals, but he says that process would have been thorny even without the new legislation.
For now, Wong-Wilson says she sees a future for astronomy on the mountain—even though establishing and empowering the new management authority will not be easy.
“There’s a lot of work that has to be done to make sure that there is a solid future for astronomy on the mauna—that those facilities that continue to do good work can do good work,” she says. “And they don’t have to be under constant political pressure or community pressure like they do now.”