University of Hawaii officials want to extend the leases that authorize telescope usage on Mauna Kea by another half century.
Their request, made in August to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, would extend the leases for more than 11,000 acres that include the Mauna Kea Science Reserve and Hale Pohaku, another 45 years beyond the current lease terms, according to documents filed with the board. Board members are scheduled to take up the request, which includes canceling the existing leases and issuing new ones, at their meeting Friday in Honolulu.
The current leases expire in 2033 and 2041. New leases, if approved this year as recommended by Department of Land and Natural Resources staff, would run for 65 years, through 2078.
UH officials offered several reasons for the request, which the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and DLNR’s State Historic Preservation Division expressed some reservations about.
“New general leases with a longer term are necessary for UH to enter into meaningful negotiations with current and any potential future telescope projects,” Board of Regents Chairman John C. Holzman wrote in a letter to DLNR Chairman William Aila. “UH anticipates that future subleases’ rent will provide a significant portion of the funding required for UH to carry out its management and stewardship responsibilities.”
Office of Hawaiian Affairs officials said they would like to see more environmental reviews completed before the board grants any new leases.
“The nature of the proposed leases, which expressly contemplate the construction of new structures and facilities, and which would allow the continuation of construction and maintenance activities in a particularly sensitive area over a much longer time than previously anticipated, would appear to be an ‘expansion or change in use’ prohibiting application of the claimed categorical exception (to having to complete a new environmental assessment),” OHA CEO Kamanaopono Crabbe wrote. “Given the breadth of actions encompassed by the entire project … the extended timeline of such actions and the particularly sensitive nature of the subject area, OHA believes that the likelihood of significant impacts would also prohibit the application of any exemption category to this proposal.”
OHA officials also questioned the length of the lease, noting a 65-year term “may unnecessarily tie the BLNR’s hands in ensuring the best and more appropriate use of this culturally and ecologically invaluable area,” Crabbe added.
The university isn’t proposing any new construction right now, UH-Hilo Chancellor Don Straney wrote in a response letter. Instead, he said, the lease extension would allow the university to extend its subleases with telescopes whose work otherwise must cease with the end of the lease in 2033. The Thirty Meter Telescope is the only project that has been authorized but does not yet have a telescope in place, and the only sublease that university officials have asked to extend beyzond 2033, which would require land board approval, Straney wrote.
“No other new uses of Mauna Kea beyond 2033 are foreseeable at this time,” Straney wrote.
Two DLNR divisions: State Historic Preservation and Forestry and Wildlife, submitted letters laying out their concerns about the proposal. SHPD’s Hawaii Island Archaeology Branch Chief Theresa Donham, in a letter, noted Mauna Kea’s significant cultural importance for the Hawaiian community. Any project on the mountain will have an impact on cultural practices, Donham added.
She requested additional public outreach before the land board granted the lease change request.
DOFAW’s Hawaii Island manager, Lisa Hadway, said she was concerned about the growing use of the state facilities on Mauna Kea, not just the telescopes, but also the visitors center.
“The improvement of Saddle Road and the draw of one of the most accessible high elevation volcanoes on earth has caused there to be an ever increasing number of visitors to the area,” Hadway wrote. “The result of this has stressed the existing visitors’ facilities. There is inadequate parking and inadequate space with commercial activities and public use overlapping.”
Straney acknowledged the increasing impact and said the university was expecting state funding, appropriated by the Legislature earlier this year, to study and design infrastructure improvements at the visitor center.
The Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce emailed members Tuesday asking them to write support letters for the university’s request.
“The Hawaii Island Chamber members have been strong supporters of the stewardship of Mauna Kea through the Comprehensive Management Plan process and beyond,” the email said. “Together we are taking care of the mountain.”