Mauna Kea – It’s About More than the Thirty Meter Telescope

By Senator Laura Thielen | Published February 12, 2016

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The public conversation about Mauna Kea is dominated by TMT. Most of what you hear are arguments over whether the telescopes are good for Hawaii and/or for Hawaiians.

I think that argument misses the real point. The civil disobedience surrounding Mauna Kea isn’t just about the TMT. It’s about the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, and the fact that even unto today we have not identified some just means of addressing that issue.

When the United States was first founded, the “fathers” deliberately chose to not address slavery. People argue endlessly whether that was a “necessary” decision. But there is no question that the decision to turn a blind eye to that injustice haunts the United States even until this day.

I believe that our collective failure to address the wrongs committed against the Hawaiian monarchy haunt Hawaii to this day.

This is not just a Hawaiian problem that the rest of us can sit idly by without caring if it’s resolved. Because even if you don’t believe there is a moral or ethical obligation to find some resolution, you should be motivated by the fact that the state will continue to see high-level protests of marquee projects time and time again until there is some resolution.

The Mauna Kea protests are simply the latest iteration of civil rebellion against a governance system that ignores this event in history, leaves the Kanaka Maoli without any meaningful say in the uses approved for crown lands, and which pays lip service to traditional values while time and again sides with commercial values.

This may sound funny coming from me, because when I was Chair of DLNR I was oversaw many such decisions. But I was also there when the University of Hawaii was ordered by the Court to develop a Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) for the entire top of the mountain. And what I experienced in overseeing that process, and afterwards, was eye-opening.

The Court order prevented any new construction on Mauna Kea until the CMP was completed and approved by the Board of Land and Natural Resources.

Initially, UH didn’t want to do an Environmental Assessment as part of the CMP. They finally agreed to do so when we (the Board of Land and Natural Resources) set our foot (feet?) down.

The original CMP didn’t address decommissioning the telescopes, cultural resources, natural resources or public access. The University only added those topics as supplemental plans when the BLNR required them to do so.

After two years, the University stepped up to the plate under David McClain’s leadership. He moved the management of the lease from the Institute of Astronomy in Manoa to the Office of Mauna Kea Management (OMKM) in Hilo. Which may not sound like a big deal, but it was. The BLNR then approved the CMP.

The Mauna Kea Protectors have been there every step of the process. The University knew any decision to subsequently issue a permit for the TMT would be challenged and argued all the way to the Supreme Court.

Despite this knowledge, UH attention wandered. Wonder-Blunder and other issues erupted; Greenwood left; Lassner started; etc., etc. Likely the UH administration didn’t place a high priority on meeting their obligations under the CMP, and OMKM was likely left with little resources to do what it could. UH did not incorporate and adopt a changed value system into the stewardship of the mauna.

The failure of the governance system wasn’t TMT’s fault, and I do feel sorry for those applicants because they have stepped up far more than UH or any other telescope.

But, unfortunately for the TMT applicants, the Mauna Kea protest is about the underlying anguish over the loss of control over governance, and the failure of our current system of governance to meet commitments to cultural values. No matter what is decided about the TMT permit, that underlying anguish will not go away until some just form of redress is found. Which means we will continue to see the anguish manifest itself in project after project, year after year. Which should motivate non-Hawaiians to come to the table for a meaningful dialogue with Hawaiians on what we need to do to chart a more productive course in the future.

I don’t know what just redress looks like. But rather than being afraid, we should look at the opportunities that effort may provide for a better future for Hawaii. Most of the cultural values around land and water are supported by many people in Hawaii. These values can perpetuate the unique beauty of our islands, the elevation of our proud cultural history, and support the productivity of our aina.

The overthrow was an ugly point in our history and we are uncomfortable in looking at it too closely. But that is the very reason we need to.