22 August 2022

A New Stewardship Paradigm for Maunakea

John O'Meara W. M. Keck Observatory

In this guest blog post, John O'Meara, Chief Scientist of W.M. Keck Observatory and member of the AAS Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy, explains recently passed legislation in Hawaiʻi establishing a new governance body for Maunakea.

In July of this year, Hawaiʻi’s Governor Ige signed into law Act 255 that establishes the Maunakea Stewardship and Oversight Authority (MKSOA) that will assume Maunakea governance and management responsibility from the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) and the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources.

This authority will, after a 5-year transition period starting next year, take on land disposition powers, including the granting of new leases for facilities on Maunakea after the current master lease, held by UH expires in 2033. The current observatories on Maunakea operate under subleases to the UH master lease, and these subleases will also remain in effect until 2033.

Under Act 255, astronomy is declared a policy (priority) of the state, and the MKSOA is founded upon a paradigm of mutual stewardship in which “ecology, the environment, natural resources, cultural practices, education, and science are in balance and synergy.” To that end, the MKSOA is composed of eleven voting members representing the state land board, county mayor, UH, the Maunakea Observatories, the state house and senate, a lineal descendant of a practitioner of Native Hawaiian customary practices associated with Maunakea, a recognized practitioner of Native Hawaiian traditional and customary practices, and experts in land resource management, business/finance, and education.

The MKSOA will establish administrative rules that will establish limits on astronomical development and may limit commercial use and activities on Maunakea. The Act reserves a minimum of 7% of the observing time of all observatories for UH. The timely decommissioning of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (removal activities to begin this summer) and UH Hōkū Kea Telescope (removal activities expected to begin in 2023) is required. Act 255 can be found online.

In my personal opinion, as a member of the Hawaiʻi astronomy community, I am grateful for UH’s stewardship and believe the authority will build upon and apply lessons learned from UHʻs experience. Maunakea is a place of immense importance: cultural, historical, ecological, economical, and scientific. I support the shift to a mutual stewardship paradigm and the broad representation of multiple perspectives and interests on the MKSOA, putting Maunakea at the center of concern for all. I do so knowing that there is uncertainty ahead, and much work to be done, but also knowing that we can thrive if we work together. We in Hawaiʻi astronomy will be rolling up our sleeves and positively engaging to help with the transition and to realize the opportunity that mutual stewardship can bring.

From the AAS Public Policy Team:

While Act 255 applies to Maunakea generally rather than any specific facility, it has possible implications for the recent, separate Notice of Intent from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has begun a scoping process for the Environmental Impact and Historical Preservation analyses for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The notice lists alternative actions the NSF may take:

  • No NSF investment in the construction and operation of an Extremely Large Telescope in the northern hemisphere (No-Action Alternative)
  • Investment in the construction and operation of TMT located on Maunakea, Hawaiʻi Island, Hawaiʻi (Alternative 1)
  • Investment in the construction and operation of TMT located on Maunakea, Hawaiʻi Island, Hawaiʻi, with an NSF-facilitated plan to define and practice responsible astronomy in Hawaiʻi in partnership with the Maunakea Stewardship and Oversight Authority, the Maunakea Observatories, and the affected Hawaiian community (Alternative 2)
  • Investment in the construction and operation of TMT located on Roque de los Muchachos, La Palma, Canary Islands (Alternative 3)

Alternative 2 will be impacted by the legislation explained above, as a new oversight authority will need to be incorporated into the NSF-facilitated plan to define and practice responsible astronomy in Hawaiʻi. You can read more about this in the FAQ provided by the NSF.