Grassroots hui coordinates defense of the Mauna Kea conservation district

By The Hawaii Independent Staff
The Hawaii Independent
Grassroots hui coordinates defense of the Mauna Kea conservation district
Grassroots hui coordinates defense of the Mauna Kea conservation district

A view from sacred Mauna Kea.


HONOLULU—Last week, a grassroots hui of Native Hawaiian practitioners, conservationists, and recreational users filed their “Opening Brief” in a contested case hearing over the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) proposed to be built on the public conservation lands of Mauna Kea.

In February, the State Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) voted to approve the University of Hawaii’s request to build the TMT, subject to the outcome of this contested case hearing. This hearing is an administrative fact-finding process, where those directly affected by the proposal can challenge the claims of the project proponents that are inconsistent with Hawaii’s laws, in order to help the agency make a more informed decision.

One of the primary challenges to the TMT is the fact that it will destroy one of the last intact natural viewsheds from the summit of Mauna Kea. If built, the TMT would obstruct summit-views of the sunset, as well as culturally significant viewplanes to Haleakala. At a proposed 180 feet, the TMT would be the tallest building on Hawaii Island—twice the height of the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and three times higher than the King Kamehameha Hotel in Kona.

“Understanding this issue is simple,” said Kealoha Pisciotta of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, one of the petitioners. “Mauna Kea is a sacred site. Destroying holy places is offensive no matter where you go, but here in Hawaii our sites are regularly destroyed in the name of development. BLNR has allowed Mauna Kea to be overbuilt and that violates our rights because Native Hawaiians and the general public can no longer enjoy these awesome sites once they are destroyed.”

Another Hawaiian group in the hui, the Flores-Case `Ohana, said in a statement: “Our ancestors remind us that Mauna Kea is still the purest, the most sacred of all of Hawaii. When we continue to build on what is left of our natural temples and our sacred places on this earth, it creates disharmony and imbalance, not only within our environment, but also within ourselves. To allow this to happen, is to continue to allow others to take all that we have left, and with that everything we are.”

In addition to disputing the merits of the TMT project, the Mauna Kea hui is also challenging BLNR’s longstanding failure to protect the Mauna Kea conservation district.

“Mauna Kea is already overbuilt,” said Deborah J. Ward, also a petitioner. “The natural resources have been impacted by habitat destruction, alien species invasion, toxic spills and trash. Since 2000, one telescope has been recycled and none removed, but still UH proposes to build more—13 more, in fact: 8 Keck Outriggers, 4 PanSTARRS, and now the massive TMT. Good management involves saying no to too many, too much.”

The area of Mauna Kea from the Saddle Road up to the summit was designated conservation land in 1961 when the current Land Use Law was enacted. The 1961 law codified the existing land use designations from the Kingdom and the territory that protected Mauna Kea as the headwaters for many streams; this law also identified the BLNR as the sole entity in charge of managing conservation districts, like Mauna Kea.

“For too long, BLNR has abdicated its responsibility to uphold the public’s interest in protecting this fragile and important conservation district,” said Marti Townsend, with KAHEA, also one of the hui petitioners. “BLNR has allowed UH—the advocate for all telescope construction on Mauna Kea—to drive decision-making about the mountain and its resources, and that is illegal.”

One consequence of BLNR’s failure to uphold the public’s interest is the fact that none of the telescopes on Mauna Kea pay rent for use of public lands, which is a violation of public trust laws.

“The people are really getting robbed in this deal,” said Clarence Kūkauakahi Ching, a former OHA trustee and longtime member of the Mauna Kea hui. “These are public lands. Any money made off the use of these lands should be going to the public, but it isn’t. What has not been given away for a dollar or less, is spent on million-dollar lawyers and PR-campaigns for projects that aren’t even fully funded. This is a negligent waste of public money, especially in this time of economic crisis.”

The Mauna Kea hui ultimately won the previous telescope construction case in 2007, when the Third Circuit Court overturned BLNR’s approval of the Keck Outrigger telescopes project for lack of an adequate management plan.  The Pan-STARRS proposal halted public hearings after the 2007 court decision was announced and has since withdrawn funding for construction on Mauna Kea.

For more information on the Mauna Kea summit, click here.

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