The Future of Mauna Kea and its Telescopes

Image (Credit): Observatories on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. (EastVillage Images/Shutterstock)

Finding the right place to build a telescope is crucial in a time of growing cities and brighter skies, which is why the telescopes atop of Mauna Kean in Hawaii are a great resource. Is that about to change? It is not clear, but a Hawaiian State bill is attempting to transfer ownership of the site. Here is a summary of House Bill 2400:

Establishes the Mauna a Wakea stewardship authority as the sole authority for management of state-managed lands on Mauna a Wakea. Requires the authority to develop a single plan that dictates the management of land uses; human activities, uses, and access; stewardship; education; research; disposition; and overall operations. Requires the authority to develop a framework to limit astronomy development on Mauna a Wakea. Allows the authority to prohibit certain commercial use and activities on Mauna a Wakea. Requires an application and fee for all recreational users of Mauna a Wakea. Establishes the Mauna a Wakea management special fund. Repeals the Mauna Kea lands management special fund. Appropriates funds.

The telescopes have been the subject of debate among Native Hawaiians who do not want to see more construction on the mountain, nor like what is already there. The land beneath the multiple observatories is under lease from the state of Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) and administered by the University of Hawaii. In 1968, BLRN provided a 65-year lease to the University of Hawaii. The bill is looking to change this arrangement by creating a new authority to oversee the use of the land. The astronomy community is generally against this bill as it would add to restrictions on the use of the land and put control of the site primarily into the hands of parties opposed to the telescopes.

The bill follows the completion of a working group study on the matter. The expectation among many in the community has been that the mountain would eventually be returned to its natural state. The working group study makes this clear: “All observatories on Mauna a Wākea shall plan for and finance their decommissioning process as a condition for any lease on Mauna a Wākea.”

Will the approved House bill pass the full Senate? That’s a whole other matter, though it has been approved by a number of committees. Only time will tell if astronomy will die a slow death on a mountain top.