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Maunakea in the distance

(This editorial by University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin was published by the Hawaii Tribune-Herald and West Hawaiʻi Today newspapers on May 20, 2020)

Stewardship and telescope operations have resumed on University of Hawaiʻi managed lands on Maunakea after suspension of all activities for nearly two-months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The university is pleased that Governor David Ige identified Maunakea as part of the state’s list of low-risk organizations that are safe to reopen. This allows the university to ramp up its stewardship initiatives and for UH observatories, along with the rest of the Maunakea Observatories (MKO), to gradually restart astronomical observations.

Bonnie Irwin headshot
Bonnie Irwin

UH and the MKO will continue to follow all health guidelines from state and local officials, as the safety of all employees remains a top priority. The resumption of operations is being done in phases and for now, include minimizing activity and restricting summit work to limited observing and essential telescope operations, including critical maintenance of instrumentation and observatory facilities.

Though operations on Maunakea had effectively ceased because of the health crisis, UH’s work to improve its stewardship of the mauna continued. In April, UH Executive Director of Maunakea Stewardship Greg Chun presented the UH Board of Regents (BOR) a plan for a new internal management structure that provides greater accountability and transparency. The regents are expected to vote on the new internal management structure at its May 21 meeting.

In addition to calling for the internal management restructuring plan, a BOR resolution adopted in November 2019 also called upon UH administration to consider and analyze overarching governance models for Maunakea that the State may choose to advance in the future. In April, Chun presented for discussion four alternative models: (1) creation of a new stewardship authority attached to a State agency; (2) Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) and Department of Land and Natural Resources resuming management and stewardship of Maunakea; (3) issuance of the master lease to an entirely new third party, directly responsible for all aspects of managing and stewarding the mountain and astronomy support; and (4) establishing a collaborative stewardship model involving all stakeholders in which UH would hold a master lease only for what is referred to as the astronomy precinct and Hale Pōhaku.

Chun highlighted examples on which these models were patterned and shared the considerations that might drive a decision in the future by State policymakers as to a preferred model.

The university also announced in February that the decommissioning of the first two telescopes is tentatively scheduled to be completed by 2023.

UH is also working on the implementation of the administrative rules signed by Governor Ige in January and approved by the BOR in November 2019. With the rules, the university will be able to address excessive traffic, establish guidelines for commercial tour operations and better protect natural and cultural resources.

Finally, significant progress is also being made on utilizing the expertise of the UH Hilo ʻImiloa Astronomy Center to enhance and improve the educational and cultural programming at the Maunakea Visitor Information Station and Hale Pōhaku, the mid-level facility on Maunakea.

These initiatives are just the beginning of the myriad improvements to our stewardship that we have in motion. And, we look forward to building on those efforts in collaboration with the community and our stakeholders to create a sustainable world-class research enterprise and knowledge industry the State can be proud of.

—By Bonnie Irwin, UH Hilo Chancellor

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