Mauna Kea

CountryUnited States
Report By
Amy Corbin
Joan Lander and Laurel Douglass for reviewing prior to publication, and Nico Correia for the update.
July 1, 2003
August 15, 2014

Mauna Kea, a volcano on the island of Hawai‘i, is sacred to Native Hawaiians as an elder ancestor and the physical embodiment—or kinolau—of deities revered in Hawaiian culture and religion. Thirteen telescopes and support facilities crowd the sacred landscape of Mauna Kea and a consortium of institutions led by the University of Hawai‘i Institute for Astronomy is now proposing construction a massive new Thirty Meter Telescope. An important ceremonial site, Lake Waiau, has been drying up in recent years, causing growing concern on the Big Island. Kealoha Pisciotta, president of the local organization Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, testified: “If we say yes to more development, we are saying yes to the desecration of our temple and our ancestors, yes to the destruction of our waters, and yes to the possible extinction of life itself.”


Mauna Kea is profoundly significant in Hawaiian culture and religion, representing the zenith of the Native Hawaiian people’s ancestral ties to Creation itself. The upper regions of Mauna Kea reside in Wao Akua (realm of the Akua-Creator) and the summit is considered to be the temple of the Supreme Being in many oral histories throughout Polynesia, which pre-date modern science by millennia. Mauna Kea is also the head waters for the island of Hawai‘i. Modern Native Hawaiians continue to regard Mauna Kea with reverence and perform many cultural and religious practices there.

For Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is the home of Na Akua (the divine deities), Na’Aumakua (the divine ancestors), and the meeting place of Papa (Earth Mother) and Wakea (Sky Father) who are considered the progenitors of the Hawaiian people. Mauna Kea, it is said, is where the Sky and Earth separated to form the Great-Expanse-of-Space and the Heavenly realms. Mauna Kea is both the burial ground and the embodiment of the most sacred ancestors, including NaAli‘i and Kahuna (high ranking chiefs and priests).

NASA had planned to build an outrigger telescope project upon the cinder cone called Pu‘u Hau‘oki, one of three cinder cones that, together, were historically known as Kukahau‘ula. Kukahau‘ula is a male character who appears in recorded Hawaiian traditions and stories. He is the husband of Lilinoe and an ‘aumakua (family deity) of fishermen. Lilinoe is said to have been buried at the summit of Mauna Kea. She has been called “the woman of the mountain” and is known as the embodiment of fine mist — the literal meaning of her name.

The summit of Mauna Kea is also home to close to a hundred archaeological sites and many traditional cultural properties eligible for listing in National Register of Historic Places. The Hawai‘i State Historic Preservation Division had plans to propose the entire summit for listing in the National Register as a historic district/cultural landscape based upon the presence of a “concentration of historic properties” including shrines, burials and culturally significant landscape features that are historically, culturally, and visually linked within the context of their setting and environment,” but this historic district designation has yet to be implemented.

Mauna Kea also has important ecological and geological value. The summit and cinder cones upon which the observatory facilities are built are part of a unique ecosystem. This ecosystem has fostered the evolution of 11 species of indigenous Hawaiian arthropods found nowhere else in the world, including the Wekiu Bug (Nysius wekiuicola), a candidate for listing as an endangered species. The Wekiu Bug, which has an anti-freeze like substance in its blood, lives solely on the high elevation cinder cones of Mauna Kea. Over the past several decades, 90% of its range has been destroyed by observatory development. Mauna Kea was also designated a National Natural Landmark, with the National Park Service recognizing it as the “most majestic expression of shield volcanism in the Hawaiian Archipelago, if not the world.” It contains the highest lake, Lake Waiau, in the country and evidence of glaciers above the 11,000 foot level.

Mauna Kea is part of Hawai‘i’s “ceded lands trust” — those lands ceded by the Republic of Hawai‘i to the United States government after the overthrow of the Hawaiian government by European and American sugar planters, descendants of missionaries, and financiers in 1893. When Hawai‘i became a state in 1959, the federal government transferred title to those “ceded lands” back to the state government to hold in public trust. Since the 1960s, the University of Hawai‘i (UH) has leased the summit of Mauna Kea from the State of Hawai‘i, Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR). With the permission of BLNR, UH subleases portions of Mauna Kea’s summit to the 13 existing observatory facilities. Instead of charging lease rent (other than a token dollar per year), UH requires each facility to provide a percentage of its observatory time to the UH Institute for Astronomy (UHIFA). As a result of its loosely-regulated development of this cultural and ecological resource, the UHIFA now boasts one of the most prominent astronomy programs in the world.

In 1998, the Hawai‘i State Auditor issued a report criticizing the UHIFA’s and BLNR’s management of Mauna Kea. The Auditor found that the UHIFA’s focus on telescope construction was “at the expense of neglecting the site’s natural resources.” Among the effects of the construction were: the damage or destruction of historic sites and Hawaiian family shrines; the destruction of the Wekiu Bug’s habitat; trash and construction debris left on the summit; and abandoned facilities and equipment. Existing management plans did not address the emergence of interferometers like NASA’s outrigger telescopes, which require multiple connected observatory facilities or arrays.


Beginning in 1998, NASA and UHIFA, along with the California Astronomy Research Association, which consists of the University of California and the California Institute for Technology, proposed to build six outrigger telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, accompanied by underground light tunnels around the observatory. However, neither NASA nor the UHIFA addressed many of the criticisms leveled by the State Auditor. Although the UHIFA set up a “management authority” (the Office of Mauna Kea Management) within the UH system, it allows Native Hawaiians and environmentalists only an “advisory” role in the control and management of cultural and environmental resources.

NASA and UHIFA claimed they attempted to balance uses of the land, but argued for the importance of the telescopes on a mountain as the best access to clear skies in the northern hemisphere. Then Hawai‘i Governor Linda Lingle approved the project on the grounds that it would offer new jobs to Hawaiians. NASA offered $1.85 million towards Native Hawaiian causes, a gesture that Native Hawaiians noted did not address the actual desecration of the mountain. From their point of view, the UHIFA ignored the call of hundreds of Hawaiian citizens to halt further exploitation and development of Mauna Kea’s summit, and to assess cumulative damage to cultural and environmental resources before proceeding with future development.

In April 2002, the Office of Hawaiian of Affairs sued NASA and the UHIFA in federal district court alleging that an environmental assessment issued by NASA for the outrigger telescopes was inadequate. On July 15, 2003, the Hawai‘i federal district court agreed, citing NASA’s failure to properly evaluate cumulative impacts. Complying with a court order, NASA completed a final Environmental Impact Statement in February 2005, which admitted that the existing telescopes had had an adverse impact on Mauna Kea’s cultural resources, but that the new telescopes would add minimal new damage. The executive summary reads in part: “From a cumulative perspective, the impact of past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future activities on cultural and biological resources is substantial, adverse and significant … In general, the Outrigger Telescopes Project would add a small incremental impact.”

UHIFA’s application to the state BLNR for a conservation district use permit to build the outrigger telescopes was approved in December 2004. This triggered a lawsuit against the BLNR by Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, the Sierra Club’s Hawai‘i Chapter and a Native Hawaiian with genealogical ties to Mauna Kea. In a Memorandum of Decision dated August 3, 2006, Third Circuit Judge Glenn S. Hara reversed the conservation district use permit. Most significant for the long-term future of Mauna Kea is the Judge’s finding that administrative rules governing astronomy facilities required a comprehensive management plan for the summit of Mauna Kea which sees the sacred landscape in its entirety. Judge Hara held that: “The resource that needs to be conserved, protected and preserved is the summit area of Mauna Kea, not just the area of the Project. Allowing management plans on a project by project basis would result in foreseeable contradictory management conditions for each project.”

Due to funding cuts at NASA, however, the project was essentially cancelled. In February 2006, the Keck Observatory announced that NASA’s 2007 budget includes no money to finish construction of the telescopes, despite having already spent $15-20 million on the project. While opponents of new construction on Mauna Kea had a moment to celebrate, just a week later, they were faced with a shocking act of vandalism. The rock base and the wooden pole frame of an altar were destroyed in a deliberate act of desecration, given that the perpetrators had to climb the peak in extremely cold weather and avoid detection by workers at the observatory.

On January 19, 2007, Judge Hara rejected the BLNR’s permit for six outrigger telescopes, saying that BLNR and UHIFA must first develop a comprehensive management and development plan for the summit of Mauna Kea that takes the whole mountain into account rather than conducting piecemeal environmental impact surveys on one site at a time. As the Judge’s series of rulings indicate, any further construction on Mauna Kea must be halted until such a management plan is developed in consultation with the community. The plan should include the following:

  • a comprehensive management and development plan with enforceable limits on future development
  • an independent management authority that is not controlled by the UH system
  • Hawaiian and environmental representation on the board of directors of the independent management authority, with participation beyond a mere “advisory” role
  • a qualified executive director of the independent management authority who has experience in cultural and environmental resources management
  • appropriate compensation by the UHIFA, and its sublessees, to the State of Hawai‘i for use of the ceded lands atop Mauna Kea

The decisions of Judge Hara should be taken as a precedent for all construction on sacred mountains, namely that construction should not be approved on a project-by-project basis, but only after the approval of a comprehensive management plan that takes into account the reality of sacred landscapes—in which desecration of one area impacts the whole.

Meanwhile, more telescope construction looms. The Thirty Meter Telescope, supported by the University of California, Caltech, and a number of international astronomy groups, is a $1.4 billion telescope that would be the most advanced optical telescope in the world. The idea for a thirty meter telescopes dates back to a 2001 publication Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium by the Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee of the National Academy of Sciences, and would be 10 times more powerful than any existing telescope. In 2009, the corporation identified Mauna Kea out of 4 other locations as its preferred site. In February 2011, the Hawai‘i Board of Land and Natural Resources conditionally approved the Mauna Kea site, and in April 2013, the board gave official approval after the preliminary decision in 2011 was contested. The TMT International Observatory, the new governing body of the project, approved the initial construction stages of the project and said they expect the project will reach completion in 2022. The ruling found that “Native Hawaiian cultural practices and resources were properly and adequately considered.” Native Hawaiian groups continue to petition against the construction of the telescope, and argue it would defile the mountain’s sacred summit. Six plaintiffs filed a Notice of Appeals in May 2013 to the circuit court challenging the April 2013 decision.

UHIFA also worked with the U.S. Air Force on the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS), a robotically-operated telescope designed to rapidly scan and photograph the night sky to detect asteroids or comets that could threaten Earth. UHIFA hoped that this project would meet less opposition because it would replace an old telescope instead of breaking new ground on the mountain, but native Hawaiians object to military uses of their sacred mountain.

On the nearby island of Maui, the National Science Foundation announced plans to build another enormous telescope atop Haleakala. At a community meeting in May 2006, 75 residents turned out to testify against the proposal. While the NSF was willing to hear opposing opinions, its lawyer stated that it has no obligation to work with Native Hawaiians. In November 2012, the project received a construction permit, but had to agree to certain stipulations like hiring a cultural specialist and to have construction workers receive mandatory ‘sense-of-place’ training.

What You Can Do

Learn more about Native Hawaiian opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope from KAHEA: the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance.

KAHEA is seeking citizens to screen the documentary Mauna Kea: Temple Under Seige in your home or community. The documentary “paints a portrait of a mountain that has become a symbol of the Hawaiian struggle for physical, cultural and political survival.” To purchase a copy of the documentary and support the efforts of its producer, Na Maka o ka `Āina, an independent film production company that focuses on the land and people of Hawai‘i and the Pacific, visit the website.


Kahea, the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance

Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve

Office of Mauna Kea Management

Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege — a documentary film about development on Mauna Kea

President Clinton’s apology to the Native Hawaiian people on the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani’s sovereign government in January 1893.