Chancellor’s Message: We need to find balance in the way we treat Maunakea

University leadership looks forward to working with all stakeholders to address Gov. Ige’s Maunakea plan.

By Chancellor Don Straney

Donald Straney
Donald Straney

As I write this in late May, Gov. David Ige has just held a press conference where he outlined his position on the Thirty Meter Telescope and the University of Hawai‘i’s management of the Maunakea Science Reserve. In addition to supporting TMT proceeding with construction, he stressed the need for UH to do a better job in its stewardship of the mountain.

We at UH take the governor’s challenge to heart and we fully acknowledge that we need to do more. UH will be releasing a formal response to the governor’s requests, but as I write this on the day of the press conference, I can say without hesitation that we will work toward making the governor’s requests happen.

Among other actions, UH will move toward strengthening our commitment to the Decommissioning Plan for the Maunakea Observatories. The decommissioning plan, approved by the Board of Land and Natural Resources in 2010, states there will be no new development of observatories on undisturbed land following TMT and that any new development can only take place on an existing site. The plan also describes the future of astronomy over the next 15 years and anticipates fewer telescopes. We will now move forward to implement the decommissioning process and formalize our legally binding commitment to no new sites within the governor’s timeline.

We also will restart from the beginning the Environmental Impact Statement process for UH’s pending lease renewal request, including full consideration of a shorter term for the new lease as the governor has requested. Further, we will immediately begin work with the Department of Land and Natural Resources to satisfy the governor’s request that we return to their jurisdiction all lands not specifically needed for astronomical research.

In addition to implementing the governor’s requests, UH will strengthen its stewardship of the mountain, including public access, cultural resources, and natural resources protection, by building on our existing programs that promote safety and educate visitors about the special nature of Maunakea.

For example, Maunakea Rangers monitor daily activity on the summit, watch for unsafe or inappropriate activities, and respond to emergencies. Rangers are on duty 365 days a year interacting with all visitors — local residents, cultural practitioners, observatory personnel, about 300,000 each year — offering health and safety warnings and answering questions regarding the cultural, scientific, and natural resources of Maunakea. Together with the Visitor Information Station, we will expand our efforts to provide information on the cultural significance and natural environment of Maunakea, as well as the science conducted there.

We also will continue our stewardship of cultural and natural resources. This includes regular monitoring of cultural sites, including shrines, ahu, and burials, identified in the extensive archaeological inventory survey done for the Maunakea Science Reserve. Through this survey, we discovered six of the sites are located in the 525-acre Astronomy Precinct and none of these include burials.

We will continue monitoring plant life identified in the botanical survey of the road corridor, the Halepōhaku mid-level facilities, and the summit. In addition, regular surveys are conducted for the presence of invasive species, in particular ants. Our five-year study of the wēkiu bug, a species found only in the summit region of Maunakea and a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, is an example of detailed work UH can do as a steward of the resources on Maunakea.

The governor made a very important point in his remarks about the need to find balance in the way we treat the mountain. I share Gov. Ige’s belief that “the activities of Native Hawaiians, and of our scientists, to seek knowledge and to explore our relationship with our cosmos and its creation can and should co-exist on the mountain.” I look forward to working with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.


Don Straney