Hawaii's ecosystem harmed by building on Mauna Kea

By Jon Osorio
Honolulu Star-Advertiser
KAHEA Board member Jon Osorio submits an op-ed response to an article posted in the Star-Advertiser on February 24, 2014, "UH regents right to OK telescope," Our View."

We must not understand the University of Hawaii Board of Regents' vote to approve a sublease for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea as a vote for "science."

It was a vote against a collective obligation to protect Hawaii's public trust resources. It was unwise.

A recent Star-Advertiser editorial was right — the need to balance astronomy-related development and protections for Native Hawaiian cultural resources and Mauna Kea's fragile ecosystems has never been greater ("UH regents right to OK telescope," Our View, Star-Advertiser, Feb. 24).

But this need should not be driven by the claims of the global research community. Nor should it be driven only by a desire to provide employment.

Achieving a balance of uses of Mauna Kea, rather, requires that we turn to history and the laws put in place to provide for such a balance.

In 1968, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) leased these (un)ceded lands to UH for, among other things, the construction of "an observatory." More than 50 years later, 12 observatories, supporting facilities, roads and parking lots, inhabit the summit — and UH has still not agreed to impose a limit on the number of telescopes that may be built.


Mauna Kea's summit comprises conservation district lands, which means that development cannot occur unless it meet eight criteria — including a prohibition against "substantial adverse" impacts.

Mauna Kea was found to have sustained such substantial impacts years prior to TMT sublease vote. Former BLNR officials raised this in their comments on the TMT proposal prior to the current BLNR's approval of the project.

We are a hui of Hawaiian practitioners, activists and environmentalists who have raised the state's failure to follow its own laws as a legal claim in the Third Circuit Court. A decision favoring the TMT would not be a "victory," as the Star-Advertiser editorial asserts, but the latest in a series of demands that Native Hawaiians relinquish sacred places to the "economy."

In more recent history, BLNR deferred its consideration of a master lease of Mauna Kea to UH pending completion of an environmental impact statement. As Office of Mauna Kea Management board member Hannah Kihilani Springer noted, it's a "little odd" to approve a sublease when the master lease has not been approved yet.

The UH Board of Regents' approval of the TMT sublease, prior to resolution of issues concerning the impacts of UH's mismanagement of the summit areas and the propriety of further construction in the Mauna Kea conservation district, is imprudent.

The Star-Advertiser and others misunderstand what is at stake in expanding industrial development on Mauna Kea. The prospect of gaining the recognition from the "global research community" cannot displace our need to better balance conservation uses of Mauna Kea against a seemingly ever-increasing demand for astronomy-related development. At stake is our ability to carry a cultural legacy and public trust obligations that undergird us as a people of Hawaii.

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