Hawaii seeks end to strife over astronomy on sacred mountain

For more than 50 years, telescopes and the needs of astronomers have dominated the summit of Mauna Kea, a mountain sacred to native Hawaiians that is also one of the most beautiful places in the world to study the night sky. It is now changing with a new state law that states that Mauna Kea must be protected for future generations and that science must be in balance with culture and the environment.

Native Hawaiian cultural experts will have voting seats on a new governing body, instead of just advising top executives as they do now. The change comes after thousands of protesters camped on the mountain three years ago to block construction of a state-of-the-art observatory, prompting politicians and astronomers to realize that the status quo had to change.

There is a lot at stake: Native Hawaiian supporters want to protect a site of great spiritual importance. Astronomers hope to be able to renew the lease of state land under their observatories, which will expire in 11 years, and continue to make groundbreaking scientific discoveries for decades to come. Economic and political leaders are eager for astronomy to support well-paying jobs in a state that has long struggled to diversify its tourism-dependent economy.

Finally, the new authority could offer the world’s first test bed to see if astronomers can find a way to respectfully and responsibly study the universe from indigenous and culturally significant lands. “We have been here for centuries. We didn’t go; we are still here. And we know it would produce a viable management solution that would be more inclusive, ”said Shane Palacat-Nelson, a native Hawaiian who helped write a report that laid the groundwork for the new law.

In question is the summit of Mauna Kea, which sits 13,803 feet (4,207 meters) above sea level. In 1968, the state granted the University of Hawaii a 65-year lease for land that the school subleases to major global research institutes in exchange for a share of observation time. Astronomers appreciate the summit of Mauna Kea because its clear skies, dry air, and limited light pollution make it the best place to study space from the Northern Hemisphere.

Its dozen huge telescopes have played a key role in advancing humanity’s understanding of the universe, including making some of the first images of planets outside our solar system. Astronomer Andrea Ghez used one to prove the existence of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, for which he shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics. But the telescopes have also changed the landscape of the summit and have more and more upset the native Hawaiians who view the place as sacred.

Protests in 2019 by people calling themselves “kia’i,” or protectors of the mountain, aimed to stop construction of the largest and most advanced observatory ever built: the $ 2.65 billion Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT. , supported by the University of California and other institutions. Law enforcement officers arrested 38 elderly, mostly Hawaiian natives, which only attracted more protesters.

Police withdrew months later after TMT said they would not go ahead with construction immediately. Protesters remained stationary but closed the camp in March 2020 amid concerns over COVID-19. The episode prompted lawmakers to seek a new approach. The result is the new governing body, the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority, which will have a board of 11 voting members. The governor will appoint eight. Governor David Ige hasn’t set a date to announce his candidates, who will go before the state Senate for confirmation. He said more than 30 have applied.

Palacat-Nelsen said traditional knowledge of Native Hawaiians could help authority determine the size of the footprint that man-made structures such as telescopes should have at the top. “Do we take heavy steps? Do we take light steps? When do we take action? In which seasons do we take action?” Palacat-Nelsen said. “All that kind of knowledge is embedded in most of our stories, our traditional stories that have been passed down.” The council will have this experience because a member of authority must be a recognized practitioner of the native culture. Hawaiian and another a direct descendant of a native Hawaiian practitioner of the Mauna Kea traditions.

At the heart of the native Hawaiian vision of Mauna Kea is the idea that the summit is the place where the gods dwell and humans are not allowed to live. A secular song says that the mountain is the eldest daughter of Wakea and Papawalinu’u, the male and female sources of all life. Even today, the mountain attracts clouds and rain that feed forests and fresh water for communities on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Lawmakers drafted the bill after a working group of Native Hawaiian cultural experts, protesters, observatory workers, and state officials met to discuss Mauna Kea. Their report, which devoted much of the mountain’s historical and cultural significance, formed the basis of the new law. Several kia’i who served in that work group support the authority. The Speaker of the House has appointed a Kia’i leader for the council. But some longtime opponents of the telescope are critical, raising questions about how broad support from the authority community will be.

Kealoha Pisciotta, who has taken part in legal disputes against TMT and other observatory proposals since 1998, said Native Hawaiians should at least have an equal position on the board. “You have no say in the matter. It is designed to create the illusion of having consensus and representation in a situation where we really don’t, ”said Pisciotta, spokesperson for the Mauna Kea Hui and Mauna Kea Aina Hou groups.

Lawmakers have said that the pressure to address Hawaii’s telescope standoff comes not only from within the state, but also from the US astronomical community. State Representative David Tarnas pointed to a report from a committee of astronomers from across the country stating that a new collaborative decision-making model needs to be developed together with indigenous and local communities. “This isn’t just the Big Island issue, it’s not just a state issue, but I believe it’s a global issue,” state Senator Donna Mercado Kim said. “I believe the world is watching to see how we deal with this problem.”

The TMT issue, meanwhile, remains unresolved: its supporters still want to build on Mauna Kea, although they have selected a site in the Spanish Canary Islands as a backup. The head of the University of Hawaii’s astronomy program said the authority could help its own institution if it “stabilizes the whole situation” for Mauna Kea astronomy. But Doug Simons said he was concerned that the authority might not take action in time to renew the lease and sublease of the summit.

The master lease requires all existing telescopes to be decommissioned and their sites restored to their original state by 2033 if the state does not authorize an extension. Simons said it will take at least five or six years to dismantle the telescopes and related infrastructure. This means that new leases must be ready by 2027 or observers will have to start closing. “There’s no obvious way around this,” Simons said. He said he is pushing for authority to be established as soon as possible to maximize the time for negotiations and the inevitable legal challenges.

Rich Matsuda, who works for the WM Keck Observatory and was part of the working group, urged any board members to avoid being “shareholders with narrow interests just trying to make sure they get their piece of the pie.” Tensions surrounding the construction of the telescope, he said, caused people to block and avoid discussing the difficult issues surrounding Mauna Kea. The new law’s prioritization of mountain welfare could alter it, he said. “My hope is that this will give us a chance, if we do it right, to change that dynamic,” Matsuda said.

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