Hawaii introduced legislation to end the conflict over astronomy at the Mauna Kea summit

Hawaii Introduces Legislation to End Strife Over Astronomy on Mauna Kea Summit

For more than 50 years, the needs of telescopes and astronomers have dominated the summit of Mauna Kea, a mountain sacred to Native Hawaiians, one of the best places in the world to study the night sky.

This is now changing with a new state law that says Mauna Kea must be protected for future generations and that science must be balanced with culture and the environment. Native Hawaiian cultural experts will have a voting seat on the new governing board instead of merely advising Summit managers.

The move comes after thousands of protesters camped out on the mountain three years ago to block construction of the state-of-the-art observatory, prompting policymakers and astronomers to change the status quo.

Much is at stake: Native Hawaiian advocates want to protect a site of great spiritual significance. Astronomers hope they can renew their leases on the state land beneath their observatories, set to expire in 11 years, and allow revolutionary scientific discoveries to continue for decades to come. Business and political leaders are eager for astronomy to support good-paying jobs in a state that has long struggled to diversify its tourism-dependent economy.

If topped, the new authority could provide the world’s first test case for whether 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 are not gone; We are still here. And we have the knowledge that will create a viable management solution that is more inclusive,” said Shane Palakat-Nelson, a Native Hawaiian who helped draft the report that laid the foundation for the new law.

The point is the summit of Mauna Kea, which is 13,803 feet (4,207 m) above sea level. In 1968, the state granted the University of Hawaii a 65-year lease for the land that the school offers to leading global research institutions in exchange for observation time.

Astronomers love the summit of Mauna Kea because its clear skies, dry air, and limited light pollution make it the best place to study space in the Northern Hemisphere. Dozens of its large telescopes have played a key role in advancing mankind’s understanding of the universe, including making the first images of planets outside our solar system. Astronomer Andrea Gaze used one to prove the existence of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, for which she shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics.

But the telescopes have also changed the summit’s landscape, and the native Hawaiians who consider the site sacred have become increasingly uneasy. The 2019 protest by people calling themselves “Kiai” or guardians of the mountain was aimed at stopping the construction of the largest and most advanced observatory yet: the $2.65 billion (roughly Rs. 21,200 crore) Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, supported by the University of California and other institutions.

Law enforcement arrested 38 elders, mostly Native Hawaiians, which only attracted more protesters. The police backed off a few months later after the TMT said it would not go ahead with construction immediately. In March 2020, protesters halted but closed the camp due to concerns over Covid-19.

The episode forced lawmakers to look for a new approach.

The result is a new governing body, the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority, with a board of 11 voting members. The Governor will appoint eight persons. wheat David Ige has not set a date to announce his nominees, who will go before the state Senate for confirmation. He said that more than 30 applications were made.

Palacat-Nelson said traditional Native Hawaiian knowledge could help the authority determine how large man-made structures such as telescopes on the summit should be.

“Do we take heavy steps? Do we take light steps? When will we take action? What seasons do we step into?” Palakat-Nelson said. “Most of our stories, our traditional stories, have all this knowledge embedded in them.”

The board will have this expertise because one member of the authority must be a recognized practitioner of Native Hawaiian culture and the other a direct descendant of a Native Hawaiian practitioner of Mauna Kea traditions.

Central to the original Hawaiian view of Mauna Kea is the idea that the peak is where the gods dwell and humans are not allowed to dwell. Centuries-old mantras say that the mountain is the eldest child of Wakea and Papavalinu, the male and female sources of all life. To this day, the mountain draws clouds and rain that provide forests and fresh water to communities on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Lawmakers drafted the legislation after a task force of Native Hawaiian cultural experts, activists, observatory workers and state officials met to discuss Mauna Kea. His report, which devoted a large part to the historical and cultural significance of the mountain, laid the foundation for the new law.

Many KIIs serving on that task force support the authority. The Speaker of the House has appointed a Kiai Leader to the Board.

But some longtime telescope opponents are critical, raising questions about how broad community support for the authority will be.

Kealoha Pisciotta, who has been part of legal challenges against TMT and other observatory proposals since 1998, said Native Hawaiians should have at least an equal place on the board.

“You are not telling the truth. “It’s designed to create the illusion of consent and representation when we really don’t,” said Pisciotta, a spokesperson for the groups Mauna Kia Hui and Mauna Kia Aina Hau.

Lawmakers said pressure to remove obstacles to Hawaii’s telescopes is coming not only from the state, but also from the US astronomy community.

State Representative David Tarnas points to a report by a committee of astronomers across the country that declares the need to develop a new model of decision-making in collaboration with local and indigenous communities.

“It’s not just a Big Island issue, it’s not just a state issue, but I believe it’s a global issue,” said state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim. “I believe the world is watching how we deal with this.”

The TMT case, meanwhile, remains unresolved: its proponents still want to build Mauna Kea, although they have chosen a site in Spain’s Canary Islands as a backup.

The head of the University of Hawaii’s astronomy program said the authority could help his own institution “if the whole situation stabilizes” for Mauna Kea astronomy.

But Doug Simmons said he fears the authority won’t be up and running in time to renew the Summit master lease and sublease.

The master lease requires that all existing telescopes be closed and their sites restored to their original condition by 2033 unless the state authorizes an expansion.

Simmons said it will take at least five or six years to dismantle the telescope and related infrastructure. This means a new lease arrangement must be in place by 2027 or the observatory will have to begin closing.

“There’s no clear way around this,” Simons said. He said he was pushing for the establishment of the authority as soon as possible to allow maximum time for negotiations and the inevitable legal challenges.

Rich Matsuda, who works for the WM Keck Observatory and serves on the working group, urged final board members to “avoid becoming stakeholders with narrow interests.

Tensions over the telescope’s construction have caused people to lock down and avoid discussing the tough issues surrounding Mauna Kea, he said. The new law’s priority for mountain welfare could change that, he said.

“My hope is that this will give us an opportunity, if we do it right, to change that dynamic,” Matsuda said.


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