New Maunakea stewardship authority to begin management transition from University of Hawaiʻi
June 25, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
* Updated June 25, 11:54 AM
On July 1, the stewardship of more than 11,000 acres atop Maunakea — Hawaiʻi’s highest mountain and land sacred to many Native Hawaiians — begins a five-year transition period from the University of Hawaiʻi that has managed it since 1968 to a new state agency created last year by the Hawaiʻi Legislature.
While there had been protests and lawsuits through the years about University of Hawaiʻi’s management of the mountain, it was a 2019 clash between culture and science over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope that brought worldwide attention and spurred the state to act.
The new Maunakea Stewardship and Oversight Authority’s 11-member board is charged with formulating a master plan during that transition period to balance culture and environment with astronomy and economic benefits.
“We all understand that we have a very heavy responsibility on this very emotionally charged issue,” John Komeiji, chairman of the new authority’s board, said Friday. “We understand the gravity of what we’ve been asked to undertake.”
Komeiji, the former general counsel and vice president for Kamehameha Schools and general manager of Hawaiian Telcom, leads the board that by state mandate brings diverse backgrounds to the table. Authority members have expertise in finance, business, land management and education, as well as a cultural practitioner.
Eight members, who former Gov. David Ige appointed on an interim basis last fall, were renominated by new Gov. Josh Green and confirmed this spring by the state Senate. The board includes Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, who was arrested in 2019 for blocking a key access road during the 2019 Maunakea protests.
Members serve three-year terms. The board also includes three ex-officio voting members and one non-voting member.
During the five-year transition period, the authority will govern the lands jointly with the university while it works to develop new management plans. The new authority takes over complete control on July 1, 2028.
Protests over the 13 telescopes at the summit of Maunakea have happened for years and blew up again in 2019 with demonstrations in opposition to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, one of a new class of extremely large telescopes that allows astronomers to see deeper into space and observe cosmic objects with unprecedented sensitivity and detail.
The university also has been scrutinized and criticized about its handling of the mauna through the years, including in a 1998 state audit. And, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs filed a lawsuit in 2017 against the state and university for mismanagement of Maunakea.
“In recent years, Maunakea has come to symbolize a rigid dichotomy between culture and science, often leading to polarization between stakeholders on Maunakea and local communities,” says House Bill 2024, the measure that established the new Maunakea authority and became Act 255 with Ige’s signature on July 7, 2022.
“This is a dynamic that plays out over many issues in many places. The critical significance of Maunakea for both culture and science offers an urgent and unique opportunity to surmount the dichotomy and develop new ways to mutually steward Maunakea.”
The move was made in hopes of protecting the mountain for future generations while managing its lands and fostering collaboration so ecology, the environment, natural resources, cultural practices, education and science are balanced.
The law that created the authority also declared astronomy as a state policy that helps create jobs and contributes to the Hawaiian economy. Maunakea is revered as one of the best places in the world for astronomy.
Komeiji said part of the beauty of the new authority is it brings together people who are very passionate but have different perspectives. Now, people whose voices might not have been heard before — but should have — are part of the decision-making process for the authority and the mauna.
“They’ll have a vote on whatever we do,” he said. “That’s very different from what’s happened previously.”
The new authority’s board meets the second Thursday of each month, and it has had several meetings already. It’s current focus is getting a framework in place and standing up the new state agency. Board members are working well together, the chairman said, and they’re also putting in the work themselves. While the board is in the process of retaining an executive assistant, the authority has not yet hired staff.
“Each of the members, because we don’t have any staff, we have a working board, and they all have pitched in to do some of the work that normally would be done by staff,” Komeiji said. “It is a whole lot of work.”
The authority also has been authorized to create five more positions as of July 1, including an executive director, administrative officer and support positions.
To date, no work has been done on a new management plan, establishing a framework for astronomy-related development on the mauna or the authority’s other mandated tasks. Komeiji hopes hiring staff can be expedited once the transition period begins to enable the board to begin work on those issues.
He is excited about what the authority is embarking on and thinks his fellow board members are, too. Komeiji hopes the plan they eventually put in place reflects the diversity and expertise of the board, with decisions and actions based on what’s best for Maunakea.
His broader goal is to develop a Hawai‘i process for finding Hawai‘i solutions to the issues the authority and its board must tackle. He couldn’t define it further, but it would include making sure they have aloha, seeking public input and providing an opportunity for all voices to be heard and understanding to take place.
“Coming to that Hawai‘i process and coming to that Hawai‘i solution is of utmost importance to me, personally,” Komeiji said. “And I think that’s shared by most, if not all, of the authority members. …
“I’m hopeful that we can do it and it serves as a sort of a template that proves that we in Hawai‘i are different. We in Hawai‘i are special. That we understand what it means to live on an island and how we have to figure out a way to address and solve some of these issues all of us in Hawai‘i are facing.”