Out of the Classroom, Sledding 13,796 Ft. Above Sea Level

At the peak of the Mauna Kea volcano, I was perched on top of the world! My visit to the volcano was significantly improved by my newfound interests sparked in my AP Gov course. I was interested in how the construction of the observatories atop the volcano had interfered with the habitat of native species and how the state government was protecting inhabitants.

Mauna Kea is 4,205 m (13,795 ft) above sea level and about two million years old. On the drive up Mauna Kea, the paved path soon turned into a dirt road, and my father and I ventured further and further up the volcano. The windy roads took sharp turns, twisting up the volcano. Once at the top of Mauna Kea, my dad and I grabbed our sled and headed for the highest peak. Having gone snorkeling in the morning, we were determined to end the day sledding — all in the spirit of adventure! 

The creation of an access road in 1964 has caused controversy between scientists and natives because the peaks of the island of Hawaii are considered sacred according to Hawaiian mythology. Today, the Mauna Kea Observatories stand atop several surrounding peaks and research across the electromagnetic spectrum from visible light to radio. Because of its high altitudes and stable airflow, Mauna Kea’s summit is one of the best sites for astronomical observation. Studies are currently underway to determine how the construction has affected the ecology of the area. For example, the wekiu bug inhabits Mauna Kea, but their population is being depleted by the loose cinder and spills of chemicals used in maintaining the telescopes. To further investigate, I researched what actions were being taken to protect these insects.

Petitions are a common way for Hawaiian natives and passionate visitors to advocate for the protection of the wekiu bug and many other insects. In October 2011, a petition was filed to list the wekiu bug as an endangered species; however, the U.S. government declined to consider it as endangered. Although petitioners were unsuccessful, they may rest assured that the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) is dedicated to managing state parks and other natural resources. As a part of the state government, the DLNR regulates park environments and protects the inhabitants to the best of their ability.

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2 comments

  1. Hello Hannah,

    Having seen the magnificence on Mauna Kea, it would have been quite an experiences being on its peak. My closest approach was in a helicopter tour mainly concentrating on the lava flows. Vulcanology is a hobby when I can get to places such as Hawaii and New Zealand.

    I am aware of the traditional Hawaiian belief in Pele as the goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes. How could such a geological feature as Mauna Kea not be considered sacred?

    I wasn’t aware of the wekiu bug but have since looked up information on them. With the diversity of life and habitats, it’s not surprising there would be an assortment of insects on Mauna Kea and the possibility of unique species very high. Considering how species interact with each other and the environment (their ecology), we can’t always be certain of the flow on effects if one species were to become extinct.

    Native Hawaiian moves to protect Mauna Kea and its life remind me of a similar situation here in Australia. You may have heard of Uluru (aka Ayers Rock) in Central Australia. It is a huge rock rising from the flat desert surrounding it. Like Mauna Kea, it is part of the traditional mythology and belief of the traditional owners of the land, the Aṉangu people.

    The traditional owners were returned title to Uluru and land surrounding it and Kata Tjuta (aka The Olgas) by the government back in 1985. If I remember correctly, an elder at the time when asked if it was good to have title returned simply had said it had always been Aṉangu.

    When tourists now visit Uluru, they find some areas have a low fence and signs explaining the significance of the fenced off area with a request to respect the belief and not access the area. Areas may be designated sacred for Aṉangu men or women.

    Another issue was people climbing on Uluru itself. The Aṉangu realised such climbs had become an important part of a visit by many tourists and have not called for a ban but explain their belief so tourists can choose not to climb Uluru.

    Perhaps, in the case of Mauna Kea, the traditional Hawaiian people are also willing to compromise to allow astronomical research to continue providing guarantees are in place to protect its unique life and habitat. My hope also would be the state government would provide protection for the area, perhaps with input from traditional owners influencing their decisions. Joint management may be a possibility as in the case of Uluru.

    @RossMannell
    Teacher, NSW, Australia

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  2. Mr. Mannell,

    Your post was absolutely delightful to receive and read. Thank you for the time you took to explain your own experience in visiting Uluru.

    I found the following quotation that describes a Native Hawaiian’s perspective on further construction. Kealoha Pisciotta (President, Mauna Kea Anaina Hou) explained, “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, now more than ever, is at the center of debate between astronomers, Natives and environmental advocates. Although the summit is an ideal location for astronomical observation, it is also a fragile ecosystem and sacred land.

    Just like Uluru, the Natives are eager to protect their environment. In order to protect the environment, it is key to educate the visitors on the unique life that inhabits Mauna Kea. There is a visitor’s center midway between the public road and volcano peak. This center’s purpose is not only to acclimate visitor’s lungs to the air, but also to educate the visitors with a video presentation on the functions of the observatories and a summary of the religious importance and ancestry of the volcano.

    The land of Mauna Kea was taken from the Hawaiian people after the overthrow of their kingdom by the Europeans and American merchants. When Hawaii was made a state in 1959, the Bureau of Land and Natural Resources leased the land to the University of Hawaii to begin construction. The observatories were then erected.

    In response to complaints and concerns, the University created a “Twenty Year Master Plan”, which claims to reflect “the community’s deeply rooted concerns over the use of Mauna Kea, including respect for Hawaiian cultural beliefs, protection of environmentally sensitive habitat, recreational use of the mountain, as well as astronomy research.” However, this plan fails to provide a limit on future development and allows for construction of three more new observatories. Most importantly, native voices were not addressed in the planning process.

    Following a declined NASA building permit, the summit still lacks protection by a much needed management plan. I hope the Hawaiian Natives and environmentalists are able to secure such protection in the future.

    Thank you again for sharing with me your knowledge of Ayers Rock!

    Sincerely,
    Hannah

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