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Who Owns the Rights to Mauna Kea?


Who Owns the Rights to Mauna Kea?

July 1, 2015

Many environmental and indigenous Hawaiian groups have organized protests against the construction of a new telescope recently approved by Governor David Ige. Environmental groups are concerned about the ecological damage the project may cause. Other groups protest the nearly “rent-free” use of the land. 

Sponsored by the California Institute of Technology, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan (no Hawaiian institutions), the telescope will be built on the slopes of Mauna Kea, the tallest, and most sacred, mountain in the state.

Most projects are required to rent the land they use. The University of Hawaii, which manages the telescopes on the mountain, is legally exempt from this requirement, resulting in protests from some Hawaiians.  The most vocal opposition comes from native Hawaiians who regard Mauna Kea as a sacred site. Led by the group Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, they argue that the construction of the telescope on the slopes of the mountain as a desecration of a sacred place.

Opponents of the telescope argue that the project was wrongly granted a Conservation District Usage Permit since it does not meet the criteria required to build in a conservation district. Earlier this month, the Hawaii Supreme Court granted a request to hear the case.

Supporters of the telescope address these concerns by illustrating the economic benefits of the project for the Hawaiian community. The project will invest $1 million per year in a fund to prepare Hawaiian students for jobs in science and technology industries. The construction of the telescope will create an estimated 300 jobs for Hawaiian workers. Once completed, the telescope will employ about 140 people and generate $26 million in observatory operations annually.

Much of the conflict between the protestors and the scientists has arisen because the land is not privately owned. The Mauna Kea Science Reserve is held in trust by State of Hawaii and designated as conservation land. Legally, state officials, not the Hawaiian people, have the right to determine the use of the land. Astronomy has been identified as a legal use for conservation land, and therefore the construction of the telescope is protected by the state.

Government control over any land can be troubling. Without strict enforcement, the land can fall victim to the tragedy of the commons, in which a lack of private ownership leads to land being used by everyone, without accountability or restraint. Many National Parks are already struggling to survive because of this phenomenon. Conversely, too many restrictions are costly, and can render the land useless to anyone.

In the case of the Mauna Kea telescopes, government control of the land essentially gives a subsidy to the new project. If the University was required to pay fair market value, it would have to compete with other organizations.

Mauna Kea Anaina Hou and other interested parties could collaborate with the Hawaiian environmental groups to purchase the land. Private initiatives for land conservation have worked elsewhere in the United States. These groups should at least be given a chance.

The state government’s approval of the project allows the owners to set their own price for rent of the land, barring the conservation groups from the market. The University should not be granted special treatment from the state government just because it is pursuing the advancement of science. The State of Hawaii should let the market work, and allow the conflicting parties to solve the problem with prices, not protests.


Jonathan Nelson is a contributor to Economics21. Follow him on Twitter here.

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