HONOLULU (AP) — House Democratic leaders announced plans Tuesday to develop a new management structure for Hawaii’s tallest mountain, where protesters in past years have blocked the construction of a large telescope on the peak some Native Hawaiians consider sacred.
The plan would take responsibility for Mauna Kea’s summit away from the University of Hawaii. Lawmakers plan to invite opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope to join the discussion on how the summit should be managed in the future.
The university leases the land at the top of the mountain from the state, and the lease is due to expire in 2033. The school operates several telescopes at the summit and subleases properties there to other universities and research institutions for other observatories.
The university is working on seeking an extension of the lease from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
House Speaker Scott Saiki, who announced the plan in a speech on the floor, said the university would have an uphill battle in getting an extension.
“If the university continues its work to extend the master lease, there will just be a lot of pressure, conflict and litigation,” Saiki said at a news conference after his announcement.
He called on the university to stop preparing an environmental impact statement for an extended lease.
Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, an organization of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners that is leading opposition to telescope construction, said she welcomes the call for the university not to extend its lease.
But she goes even further, favoring a bill introduced to the Legislature calling for no further development on the summit.
“You need to remove the injury before you begin talking about anything else,” Pisciotta said.
Greg Chun, the university’s executive director of Mauna Kea stewardship, said his institution is open and receptive to working with the discussion group House leaders have proposed.
“But our interests would be to ensure that a future for astronomy is considered in whatever you set up,” Chun said.
If built, the Thirty Meter Telescope would be one of the world’s largest optical telescopes.
An international consortium of universities and research organizations led by the University of California and California Institute of Technology obtained permission from Hawaii to build the telescope after a yearslong permitting process.
But in 2019, protesters blocked the road leading to the summit to prevent construction vehicles from heading up to build the observatory. The researchers have since paused the construction effort.
Many Native Hawaiians consider the mountain’s summit to be sacred and view the telescopes as defiling the site. The protests two years ago, which went on around the clock for several months, drew supporters from across the state and celebrities like actors Jason Momoa and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.