Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lawmakers approve measure to protect Mauna Kea Lands

The Hawaii State Legislature last week approved a measure giving the University of Hawaii System rule-making authority to better manage public and commercial activities on Mauna Kea lands on the Big Island. The Mauna Kea lands referred to in this bill include the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, Hale Pohaku, the connecting roadway corridor between these two locations, and any other lands the University leases from the Board of Land and Natural Resources.

The measure, House Bill 1174, seeks to protect Mauna Kea's unique cultural and natural resources from prohibited activities that may damage historically and culturally significant sites. A number of various groups, from tourists to Hawaiian cultural practitioners to scientists to astronomers to researchers and educators, frequent Mauna Kea every year. Because improper care of these lands will have disastrous impacts on the future of one of Hawaii's most precious places, lawmakers, UH officials and Big Island community members collaborated to remedy this problem by allowing the University, through the Office of Mauna Kea Management (OMKM) and the Mauna Kea Management Board (MKMB), the authority to regulate all activities.

"There is no argument that Mauna Kea, particularly the summit region, is a special place," said Representative Jerry Chang (D-2, S. Hilo, Waiakea Kai, Kaumana, Keaukaha), chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education. "This bill complies with the state auditor's two reports in 1998 and 2005 on the management of Mauna Kea, which called for the University and not the Department of Land and Natural Resources to seek rule-making authority and implement rules to protect our precious resources on Mauna Kea."

The UH Board of Regents (BOR) will have the authority to charge fees and enter into lease agreements for the Mauna Kea lands, adopt rules to regulate any recreational activities on the lands, and access fines for rule violations. The BOR must hold at least one public hearing, in addition to the public hearing at which decision-making on the proposed rule is made, on the island of Hawaii.

The measure will provide for a comprehensive management plan and enable officials to enforce rules and assign consequence. First time violators would have to pay as much as $2,500 for an offense. A second offense within five years of the previous violation could get a person a fine as much as $5,000, and a third violation as much as $10,000.

Currently, without the authority to adopt or enforce specific rules, the OMKM and its rangers can only ask violators to stop restricted activity such as desecration of sites, prohibited entry into archaeologically or environmentally sensitive sites, littering, graffiti, and unsafe or improper operation of recreational, off-roading, or any other motor vehicle.

”The University has acknowledged the shortcomings of its stewardship of the Mauna Kea lands," said Rep. Mark Nakashima (D-1, N. Kohala, S. Kohala, Hamakua, N. Hilo, S. Hilo), vice chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education. "This measure is the first step in addressing the concerns expressed by the community to protect the mountain’s valuable resources."

The bill also requires the University, in establishing administrative rules, to work with and hear from the community, particularly the Big Island community, and consult with the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. In addition, as a checks and balances system, the UH BOR must report back to the Legislature prior to the start of each legislative session with an annual report on the Mauna Kea lands activities, current and pending lease agreements and fees, the status of current and pending administrative rules, and income and expenditures of the special fund.

"We want the Mauna Kea lands issue and this legislation – and all legislation – to be about transparency and collaboration," said Rep. Chang. "Public participation and checks and balances are of utmost importance to promote accountability and public trust."

All rent, fees and charges, fines collected from violators, and monies appropriated from the legislature will be deposited into the Mauna Kea lands management special fund. No funds were appropriated from the legislature this year. The proceeds from the special fund can be used for management of the Mauna Kea lands and enforcement of adopted rules.

"This gives the Legislature and the University assurance that funds will always be available for the proper management and protection of Mauna Kea," added Rep. Chang.

The measure has been transmitted to the governor for signature.

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