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OHA: Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Mauna Kea. Photo: sin_ok, adobestock.com

OHA files lawsuit against state for mismanagement of Mauna Kea

HONOLULU (Nov. 8, 2017) – The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) filed a lawsuit yesterday in First Circuit Court against the State of Hawaiʻi and the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) for their longstanding and well-documented mismanagement of Mauna Kea.

OHA’s complaint requests the court to order the state to fulfill its trust obligations relating to Mauna Kea and to terminate UH’s general lease for the mountain for breach of the lease’s terms.

“The state and UH have failed to properly mālama Mauna Kea and have demonstrated their inability to ensure that the environmental and cultural significance of the mountain is recognized and protected,” said OHA Trustee Dan Ahuna, the chair of OHA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Mauna Kea. “This is not about any one telescope. This lawsuit is about addressing the state’s failure to manage the entire mountain for nearly half a century.”

“It’s time to abandon any hope that UH is capable or even willing to provide the level of aloha and attention to Mauna Kea that it deserves,” Ahuna continued. “We need to come together as a community to completely re-think how we care for the mauna, and that starts with cancelling the university’s master lease.”

Four state audits have documented and criticized the state and UH’s mismanagement of Mauna Kea. The initial audit from 1998 concluded that “little was done” to protect the natural resources on Mauna Kea since the first telescope was constructed in 1968. The audit further noted that UH did not allocate sufficient resources to protect Mauna Kea’s natural resources because it focused primarily on astronomy development.

The three follow-up state audits revealed that while some progress had been made, more needed to be done. In a 2010 study, the university conceded that from a cumulative perspective, past, present and reasonably foreseeable future activities resulted in substantial and adverse impacts to the mauna’s cultural, archaeological, historical and natural resources. In 2015, the leadership of both the state and the university publicly admitted to failing to meet their management responsibilities. Gov. David Ige said that the state has “not done right by” and “failed” the mountain, and UH President David Lassner stated that the university “has not yet met all of [its] obligations to the mountain or the expectations of the community.”

As trustees of Mauna Kea, both the state and UH have breached their moral and legal obligations to manage this important place. OHA has identified countless issues and failings that have attributed to the continued mismanagement of Mauna Kea by the state and UH, including:

  • Failure to budget and fund proper management of Mauna Kea;
  • Failure to prudently negotiate sublease terms – for example, by allowing 11 of 13 telescopes to not pay rent;
  • Failure to adequately implement the 2009 Comprehensive Management Plan, with 32 of the 54 management actions that specifically affect Native Hawaiians remaining incomplete;
  • Failure to create an environment respectful of Mauna Kea’s cultural landscape, including by not adequately protecting Native Hawaiian traditional and customary rights and practices on Mauna Kea;
  • Failure to manage access to Mauna Kea and activities on Mauna Kea, which has led to vehicular accidents and personal injuries and deaths, and hazardous material spills; and
  • Failure to manage observatory development and decommissioning.

Over the decades, OHA has continuously advocated for improved management with the Legislature, UH Board of Regents, UH’s Office of Mauna Kea Management and BLNR. In 2002, OHA filed a federal lawsuit to force NASA to conduct a more comprehensive environmental study for an observatory project that was proposed for Mauna Kea but eventually abandoned. With growing concern regarding the management of Mauna Kea, OHA entered into a mediated process with the state and UH in 2015 to address these management shortcomings. Ultimately, the nearly two-year process was unsuccessful.

“The state and UH have failed as trustees and stewards of this beloved and sacred place. It’s been nearly 20 years since the first audit identified major issues with the management of Mauna Kea, and it is unacceptable that these concerns continue to remain,” said Kamana‘opono Crabbe, OHA’s Chief Executive Officer. “Having exhausted all our options, we are compelled to file this lawsuit to hold the state accountable for its mismanagement.”


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