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View from Maunakea_Credit Maunakea Rangers

Commitment to Maunakea and Hawaiʻi

Maunakea is one of the most revered places in Hawaiʻi because of its cultural, historic and environmental significance, as well as being the world’s premier site for astronomy. The University of Hawaiʻi is privileged to be responsible for the stewardship of significant lands on Maunakea and for providing a thoughtful approach to astronomy research on the mauna.

The purpose of the 65-year lease granted to UH by the State in 1968 was to operate the Maunakea Science Reserve as a scientific complex to establish astronomy in Hawaiʻi. UH was spectacularly successful at this, but a 1998 State audit critical of the university’s overall management of the mauna made it clear that the privilege of stewardship carries an even greater responsibility to mālama, to care for, Maunakea, a wahi pana or storied place. The university has acknowledged and apologized for its stewardship of Maunakea in the last century. Subsequent state audits of the university’s management of Maunakea have documented its commitment and improvement over time.

Maunakea is truly deserving of the highest levels of stewardship. Decisions on access to Maunakea for culture, science, education, recreation and commercial activities require broader policy discussions involving stakeholders across multiple communities and policymakers on Hawaiʻi Island and the State.

House Maunakea Working Group

UH Stewardship of Maunakea

UH has made great strides since 1998. An Independent Evaluation Report commissioned by the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and released in 2020 stated, “We heard many comments that the cultural and natural resources on the state conservation lands on Mauna Kea are some of the best managed and protected lands in the entire State.”

In 2017, the Hawaiʻi Historic Foundation presented UH with a Preservation Commendation Award, the foundation’s highest recognition of preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and interpretation of the state’s architectural, archaeological and cultural heritage.

In 2014, the State auditor conducted an extensive follow-up (PDF) to the 1998 audit and observed: “We found that UH has developed several management plans that provide a comprehensive framework for managing and protecting Mauna Kea while balancing the competing interests of culture, conservation, scientific research and recreation.” Subsequent reviews (PDF) by the State Auditor have shown continuous progress and improvement.

UH acknowledges that there is much more that needs to be done and that stewardship is an ongoing, ever evolving commitment. The university remains steadfast in its commitment to continually improve its stewardship of Maunakea.

Many of the criticisms about UH are not necessarily tied to the university’s management, which has a proven track record of steady improvement since 2000. Even the 2020 DLNR Independent Evaluation found that people’s perceptions of UH’s effectiveness as manager were associated with whether people supported telescope development on Maunakea. The claims of UH mismanagement are from those who are opposed to the state policy that have supported astronomy on Maunakea for more than five decades now. It is a statewide policy question/issue that the State of Hawaiʻi has to once again consider, not UH.

UH Committed to Collaborative Stewardship

The UH Board of Regents adopted a resolution in 2017 affirming UH’s commitment to the collaborative stewardship of Maunakea’s cultural, natural, educational and scientific resources in a manner that integrates traditional Indigenous knowledge and modern science. The resolution directs the university to work with the State, County of Hawaiʻi, Native Hawaiian organizations and the community to achieve this aim.

To that end, one of the key commitments in the new Maunakea Master Plan adopted in January 2022 is to broaden Native Hawaiian and community participation in planning and programming.

The Maunakea Management Board passed a motion in December 2021 to restructure the volunteer community board to include ex-officio seats for the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources, Hawaiʻi Department of Hawaiian Homelands, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the County of Hawaiʻi, with the remaining seat to include various stakeholder interest.

The university continues to work actively on new governance approaches to strengthen and broaden direct engagement with Native Hawaiian and other community stakeholders. UH stands open and ready to collaborate with all.

skyline view of Maunakea observatories

Openly Developed and Adopted Management Plans

A new era of stewardship began after the 1998 audit with a commitment to community and stakeholder engagement. The Maunakea Master Plan was openly developed and adopted in 2000 and officially shifted the stewardship responsibility to Hawaiʻi Island. The plan created the Office of Maunakea Management in Hilo and two community-based boards—the Mauna Kea Management Board and Kahu Kū Mauna, the Native Hawaiian advisory council that provides guidance and counsel on management matters and cultural stewardship. The UH Board of Regents adopted a new Maunakea Master Plan in 2022 (more information in the next section).

The Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) was adopted in 2009 followed by four detailed sub-plans in 2010 for public access, cultural resources management, natural resources management and observatory decommissioning.

The CMP includes 103 management actions (MAs) for implementation by the university. The Hawaiʻi Board of Land and Natural Resources’ (BLNR) 2020 Independent Evaluation Report concluded that the university has implemented most of the CMP MAs, and in many cases, “effectively implemented them to achieve the desired outcomes of protecting the resources.” Areas for improvement noted by the report focused primarily on education and outreach efforts by the university. These efforts are detailed below and will continue to include outreach to the Native Hawaiian community, recreational users, commercial tour operators, the observatories and other interested persons.

An update to the CMP is underway (more information in the next section).

Management Plans and New Land Authorization

Man recording data for historic property monitoring at east-edge of science reserve

A new Master Plan for Maunakea was approved by the UH Board of Regents in January 2022. The Master Plan for the University of Hawaiʻi Maunakea Lands: E Ō I Nā Leo (Listen to the Voices) can be viewed online.

Volume 1 – January, 2022 (13 Mb PDF)
Volume 2 – January, 2022 (63 Mb PDF)

The plan is serving as a framework for aligning land-use decisions in a manner that is consistent with UH‘s mission and purpose. The overarching goals are related to responsible stewardship, maintaining leadership in astronomy, diversifying educational pursuits and seeking balance among those who come to Maunakea.

The new Master Plan further formalizes a commitment by the university to establish a limit of nine telescopes after 2033. It also restricts future development to existing observatory sites. The plan did NOT approve, adopt or fund any new projects or land uses.

An update to the CMP is underway and expected to be submitted to the UH Board of Regents and BLNR in 2022. In the work on both plans, UH is incorporating strategies to broaden and strengthen public outreach and community engagement.

The university is also preparing a draft environmental impact statement for the proposed land authorization to replace the two existing leases and easements on UH-managed lands on Maunakea. The new land authorization must ultimately be approved by the BLNR.

ʻImiloa’s Important Role in Elevating Culture and Education

Two children watch as an instructor demonstrates a techniques using colored discs and a flash light

The ʻImiloa Astronomy Center at UH Hilo opened in 2006 with a mission to honor Maunakea in all its dimensions, exploring science and culture as different facets of the same reality. ʻImiloa is the only science center in the world founded for the explicit purpose of public education on contemporary science within the context of an Indigenous culture.

Utilizing ʻImiloa’s unique expertise, the center is working on ways to elevate culture and education as key priorities alongside astronomy and land stewardship. These efforts include developing educational materials for those who work on and visit Maunakea, as well as improving the educational and cultural programming at the Maunakea Visitor Information Station and Hale Pōhaku.

ʻImiloa’s important community outreach work has been invaluable, with the center attracting more than 1 million visitors—85% of whom are local, including 120,000 K–12 school children—through guided field trips and educational programs. The overall outreach efforts have reached thousands of people throughout the world through programs delivered directly in schools and communities.

Educational Outreach and Opportunity

Providing the community and students of all ages opportunities to experience the wonders of astronomy is a top priority. Before COVID-19 pandemic, UH and the Maunakea Observatories organized events that reached more than 13,000 students and community members annually. UH students also have access to the Maunakea telescopes, an amazing opportunity unavailable to undergraduate students elsewhere.

The Maunakea Scholars program—a collaboration between the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education, UH and Maunakea Observatories that began in 2015—provides Hawaiʻi public high school students with the opportunity to engage in world-class science using the best resources in the world for their own independent research projects. Students work with UH graduate student mentors to develop astronomical research proposals with one-third receiving telescope time on the Maunakea Observatories. Maunakea Scholars is the first state-wide astronomy outreach program working with students at 13 schools across six Hawaiian islands.

Imiloa Astronomy Center at U H Hilo

Stewardship Progress Since 2015

The UH Board of Regents and the university administration under President David Lassner have undertaken a number of initiatives to create clear lines of accountability and improve UH’s stewardship of Maunakea.

The Executive Director for Maunakea Stewardship position was established in August 2019 and reports to the UH Hilo Chancellor. The executive director is responsible for all UH programs related to Maunakea and its cultural, natural, educational and scientific resources.

In August 2020, the Regents approved the restructuring of the internal management of these programs and UH-managed lands, creating the Center for Maunakea Stewardship. It combines the Office of Maunakea Management and Maunakea Support Services, and formalizes the collaborative roles for the UH Mānoa Institute for Astronomy and UH Hilo ʻImiloa Astronomy Center. The restructuring establishes clear accountability while leveraging the strengths of the responsible units and programs within UH’s management operations.

The Center for Maunakea Stewardship is responsible for the strategic implementation of stewardship programs, planning, permitting, compliance oversight, outreach, and research and academic coordination, as well as for fiscal planning and management.

Annual operating costs for stewardship alone are $12 million, the majority of which is covered by extramural and non-general funds generated by the university. In addition, UH provides world-class global network connectivity for all Maunakea Observatories so that data collected on the mountain can be shared with researchers and students at institutions around the world.

Providing Safe Public Access and Managing Commercial Activities

People viewing the sunset from the top of Maunakea

Utilizing input gathered during many months of substantial community outreach, two rounds of formal public hearings, and hours of public testimony at its meetings, the UH Board of Regents adopted administrative rules for Maunakea at the end of 2019, and they were signed by Gov. David Ige in January 2020.

The Center for Maunakea Stewardship is now in the process of implementing the rules. Activities underway include establishing processes to manage access in order to limit excessive traffic, updating commercial tour operator guidelines and setting up a system to support Maunakea Rangers enforcement authority.

With substantial financial support from the observatories, UH continues to provide safe access for cultural practitioners, workers and the general public. The road to the summit is graded weekly and snow plowed when necessary, and weather, traffic and safety alerts are provided to the general public.

Maunakea Rangers Protect People and the Mauna

Maunakea Ranger giving advise to visitors in vehicle

Through a program established in 2001, UH’s Maunakea Rangers are on duty seven days a week and were interacting with approximately 300,000 visitors each year before the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes cultural practitioners, local residents, tourists and observatory personnel. Rangers provide first response emergency care, health and safety warnings and traffic control. They also act as ambassadors answering questions regarding the cultural, scientific and natural resources of Maunakea.

Observatory Decommissioning Underway

The University of Hawaiʻi has committed to removing five telescopes on Maunakea by the time the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is operational. The facility removal and site restoration for the first two observatories, the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and the Hōkū Keʻa Telescope, are tentatively scheduled to be completed by 2023. The CMP’s detailed decommissioning process takes time as it requires a review of telescope deconstruction, removal, site restoration, environmental due diligence, cultural impacts and required state and county permits. In many ways, removing a telescope is as complex a process as building one.

Options are being prepared for the other three telescopes to be removed and will be identified at a later date. The university has formally committed to a reduction to nine operating astronomy facilities by 2033 and no new sites for astronomy except the one identified for TMT.

Stewardship Fees

Man planting silversword seedlings

Current observatories entered into subleases in the last century that all expire in 2033. These subleases do not include stewardship fees, although all observatories make substantial payments for common services that support the community as well as their needs including road maintenance, snow plowing and the staffing and maintenance of the Visitor Information Station. UH initiated a new approach with TMT, which agreed to pay more than $1 million per year to support stewardship of Maunakea when fully operational, in addition to paying for its share of common services. TMT also provides a community benefits package for Hawaiʻi Island of an additional $1 million per year for STEM education and workforce development. UH intends to implement a similar approach to determine appropriate stewardship fees in the agreements for observatories that will remain on Maunakea past 2033.

Monitoring Cultural Resources

Two researchers monitoring historical site near Puuwaiau

UH conducts rigorous monitoring of more than 260 historic, archaeological and cultural sites, including shrines, ahu and burials based on long term monitoring and burial plans approved by the State Historic Preservation Division. The sites were identified in an extensive archaeological inventory survey that the university completed for the 11,288-acre Maunakea Science Reserve and access road.

Protecting Natural Resources

Alpine tetramolopim, close-up of small white petaled flowers with dew hanging on

UH has a robust natural resources program for the mountain and oversees regular monitoring of native and invasive species as identified in the Maunakea Invasive Species Management Plan. Early detection surveys are conducted both inside and outside of facilities to detect new invasive species threats before they become established. Additionally, large deliveries and vehicles traversing to UH-managed lands are inspected for invasive species prior to arrival on UH lands to prevent invasive species from getting up to the mauna. More than 1,500 community volunteers and students have assisted with the invasive weed removal volunteer program and have removed more than 2,400 garbage bags of invasive weeds since 2012.

Wēkiu Bug Success Story

Maunakea wekiu male insectThe wēkiu bug was first listed as a candidate for federal protection in 1999, and UH began conducting intensive annual surveys in 2002. After years of research on the insect’s biology, genetics and habitat, combined with UH’s Comprehensive Management Plan assuring its protection, the wēkiu was removed as a candidate for federal protection in 2011 as the species thrived.

Native Plant Restoration

mamane sapling on Maunakea reserve

The goal of native plant restoration is to enhance the native ecosystem on Maunakea by providing a habitat for native flora and fauna. Work to restore native Hawaiian plants on Maunakea at the Halepōhaku mid-level facility at the 9,000 foot elevation level began in 2019. Native fauna now flourishing in the area include māmane, ʻāweoweo, pawale, puakala and heʻupueo, a native grass. CMS collects the seeds from established native plants in the area. The seedlings are grown in soil exclusively from Maunakea to prevent the spread of invasive species before being outplanted in the natural environment. Invasive weeds are removed on a daily basis to give the native plants the best chance of survival.

Last modified: March 10, 2022
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