Public Access to Mauna Kea

I think we can agree that the mountain is heavily used, visitor numbers have steadily increased over the past few years. The summit road is busy, particularly as sunset nears, a steady line of vehicles heading for the summit. During the recent discussions on the future of Mauna Kea, many have noted these increased numbers with dismay. Various suggestions have been floated to reduce the numbers of people on the mountain, but there are problems with any changes.

The recent extended closure of the summit road and visitor center has brought this issue into sharp focus. Comments by various parties including Governor Ige and TMT protesters reveal very different visions for access to Mauna Kea.

Watching a Mauna Kea Dawn
A pair of visitors watch dawn atop Mauna Kea
I admit a personal agenda here, I go to the mountain regularly for several different reasons. Sometimes to enjoy the dark skies with a telescope, sometimes leading group excursions for our local astronomy club, other times to simply photograph the beauty of this place. Even though my duties as a an observatory engineer include going to the summit a couple times each week, I find myself in the high country of Mauna Kea regularly for other reasons.

Why are the numbers increasing? Those responsible for caring for our mountain, the Office of Mauna Kea Management (OMKM) have done nothing to encourage visitors to the mountain. Actually they often attempt to discourage visitation. The basic legal framework for management of the mountain is the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan1, there is a a sub-plan specifically addressing public use of Mauna Kea. A stated goal in the document is to control visitor numbers.

Public activities will be encouraged at lower elevations in order to limit traffic to the summit region, protect public safety and health, and minimize human impacts on cultural and natural resources. – MKCMP Public Access Plan 1

Anyone looking for the reason, for the popularity of Mauna Kea, needs to look squarely at the visitor industry. Pretty photos and gushing descriptions are found in almost every tourist publication concerning the island of Hawai‘i. Glossy full page ads for the summit tour companies are in every magazine, in every seat-back, in front of every tourist as they cross the Pacific to the islands.

The surge in visitors to Mauna Kea can also be attributed to social media, pretty photos on Facebook, tourist adventures tweeted to everyone back home. Awareness of the mountain has placed Mauna Kea on an increasing number of tour itineraries.

The mountain is currently closed to the public, a situation that is growing ever more tense with many loud complaints to be heard from all who come to Mauna Kea, the tour companies, hunters, tourists, amateur astronomers and photographers. Cultural practitioners have sued to reopen the summit road but were rebuffed when the court declined to issue a restraining order.

Add to this the emergency rules approved by the Board of Land and Natural Rescources on July 10th. These rules are effective for 120 days and among other things eliminates nighttime access to the areas within one mile of the access road, including the Hale Pōhaku area and the summit, between the hours of 10pm to 4am.

If that was not enough there are proposed changes to the Mauna Kea Comprehensive management plan that would allow various measures to be put in place. Open hours of access, access fees, vehicle type restrictions and more.

Access rules that significantly limit and condition non-cultural access to the mountain must be moved expeditiously through the process. There is far too much routine access to this special place and it cannot continue to carry this burden. – Gov. Ige 2

Who gets to go to the mountain? Who does not? That very question runs afoul of the basic tenets of equality in our society. There are those who would limit use of the mountain to native Hawaiians only. I have recently encountered this sentiment expressed, to be diplomatic here, in very forceful language. I have to disagree, the mountain belongs to all of us, all who live, hunt, work, or simply enjoy Mauna Kea.

The problem is when you attempt to decide some rules for limiting access to the mountain. Any possible action here is fraught with social and political landmines. Who is and who is not allowed to go to the summit? Any attempt to limit access based on race or religion is guaranteed to be challenged in court. I would suspect that any court challenge would rightly succeed. In the end this is public land, belonging to the people of Hawai‘i. Any resident of this island should be able to visit the mountain when they wish.

Mauna Kea Summit
The true summit of Mauna Kea
Limitation of commercial tours is already a reality, specified by the CMP at 18 fourteen passenger vans allowed on the mountain at any one time1, but subject to change as needed. Commercial tours account for nearly half of the visitors to the summit, controlling the number of tours does provide a practical tool to limit summit use.

Beyond commercial tours there are currently no limits imposed on summit visitors. The CMP Public Access Plan discusses limits, but proposes only one possible method of accomplishing this, a shuttle service similar to what is being used in some national parks on the mainland. I suspect that even this plan would be subject to a great deal of resistance from the local community. A fare to ride a summit shuttle would be an burden on a local family of limited means far out of proportion to well funded mainland tourists who would consider ten or twenty dollars per person cheap in comparison to the commercial tours.

Any barriers, however modest, will create resentment in the local community. This is why it would be exactly the wrong thing to do. The people of this island rightly believe that it is their mountain. It looms above everything, visible from much of the island, a major presence in people’s lives. How do you place any restriction on their use of the mountain?

Another ad-hoc limitation is the requirement for true low-range, four wheel drive vehicles. While not currently enforced it is strongly recommended. Under proposed administrative rule changes3 this would become mandatory and enforceable. The truth is that 4WD is not really needed to make the summit, the large number of rental sedans that currently make the trip are proof of that. It is simply a way to specify vehicles with a far lower chance of breaking down under the stress of steep roads and thin air. This does serve as an effective deterrent to many potential summit visitors.

What I would hope to see is that future visitor access to the mountain be handled through the Native Hawaiian community so that visitors have a greater understanding of and respect for the cultural significance of the mountain. Anyone going on the mountain must receive training in the cultural aspects of the mountain and how to be respectful to the cultural areas. – Gov. Ige 2

Cultural education for summit staff, those who regularly work on the summit is already implemented and mandatory. Attempting to educate every visitor? This becomes far more difficult. Any mandatory education effort runs the risk of resulting in exactly the opposite of what is intended. Ill will and resentment are very possible results in those required to attend for a simple two hour visit.

Sunset Watchers
Summit visitors watch the sunset
The Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station staff do provide information, but it is a soft sell, not a mandatory or overly intrusive effort. It could be improved, but to what extent? The MKVIS is badly in need of renovation and expansion to properly handle the current visitor load. Any improvements could and should include a much expanded cultural element.

An important facet to consider here is where do these people go. From my own observations the vast majority go directly to the summit ridge and little else. A small fraction take the short trail to the true summit, or complete the loop road past Keck and Subaru. The number of visitors who hike the summit trail, or even go to lake Waiau is an astonishingly small fraction of the total visitor count.

Controlling where people go through education plus passive and active measures can be a very effective tool in managing the impact to the mountain. Restrictions on where unofficial vehicles are allowed, barriers to foot traffic, clear signage steering visitors to specific points, there are many practical measures to limit impact to a small fraction of the summit area and still provide a positive visitor experience.

The proposed changes to the administrative rules3 strongly suggest that OMKM is looking to introduce visitor fees for access to Mauna Kea. While this might provide for increased funds available for facilities and personnel, it would do little to discourage visitation. Those who are planning to visit Mauna Kea as part of their vacation plan will still come. This would create a barrier to local families and groups simply looking to visit the mountain, with the same effect of creating resentment and dissent as discussed above.

If there is any restriction or practical barrier, such as access fees, residents of the island of Hawai‘i should be exempt from such measures. This is the only exception that has proven to be both practical and legally permissible. Mauna Kea is a common thread through the lives of all the islands’s residents. Any form of exclusion from the summit will simply result in more distrust and animosity by the local community.

In the end I expect little change beyond a possible fee system. Any other possible restriction runs afoul of very real concerns. The result is a heavy visitor load on the mountain, that is unavoidable. What should be done is to improve the facilities, improve the education effort, and limit where on the summit most of these people go through carefully planned measures.


  1. Public Access Plan for the UH Management Areas on Mauna Kea, A Sub-Plan of the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan, Office of Mauna Kea Management, January 2010
  2. Governor’s office transcript from the press conference of 26May2015
  3. Proposed changes to administrative rules, the Office of Mauna Kea Management, June 15, 2015.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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