- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2019

It was supposed to be a plum for Hawaii: a telescope powerful enough to peer back almost to the origins of the universe. But instead protests have erupted as Native Hawaiians and others seek to stop construction on a mountain regarded as a sacred site.

Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope were dealt a blow Tuesday as a state judge refused to grant a temporary restraining order to block the project, leaving no resolution in sight in the nine-day stalemate between Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, and the growing swell of demonstrators at Mauna Kea.

Mr. Ige, who came under fire for enacting an emergency proclamation last week to handle the protests, announced Tuesday that he had asked Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim to coordinate state and county efforts “to reach common ground with the protectors of Maunakea and the broader community.”

“Mayor Kim is closest to the situation, and the impacts are greatest on the island he leads,” Mr. Ige said. “We both share the goal of achieving a resolution that is peaceful & satisfactory to as many as possible in the community.”

Protesters began gathering last week at the base of Mauna Kea prior to the start of construction on the $1.4 billion project, which was scheduled for July 15. That crowd swelled to an estimated 2,000 over the weekend.

The protest has drawn comparisons to the 2016-17 occupation near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota aimed at blocking the Dakota Access pipeline. The demonstration drew thousands and lasted more than six months before disbanding. The pipeline was ultimately completed.

Like Standing Rock, Mauna Kea is considered more than a protest against one telescope. The decision to place a 13th observatory on the mountain has stoked long-simmering tensions with Native Hawaiians, who make up about 6% of the state’s population but have long lagged behind on income, education and life expectancy.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who visited the site and spoke to protesters Monday, said the state may have to “move on” from the telescope if a compromise cannot be reached, even though the Hawaii Supreme Court cleared the way for construction in October after an approval process that began 10 years ago.

“One project can’t be allowed to disrupt the fabric of our state’s ohana,” Mr. Green told Hawaii News Now, using the Hawaiian word for “family.” “So if there can’t be a brokered peace that prevents that, then the TMT would have to move on.”

The protest has drawn nationwide support, with solidarity rallies over the weekend in Las Vegas, New York City and Waikiki. Actor Jason Momoa, who stars as Marvel’s Aquaman, has spoken out against the telescope.

Critics also include a host of Democratic presidential contenders, including Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who tweeted that Hawaiians “are trying to protect a sacred site from further desecration.”

Mr. Ige said Tuesday that he and Mr. Kim “both understand that the issues underlying what is taking place today are far deeper than TMT or Maunakea. They are about righting the wrongs done to the Hawaiian people going back more than a century.”

The semi-autonomous Office of Hawaiian Affairs accused the state last week of moving forward without “sufficiently addressing the Native Hawaiian community’s long-standing opposition to the state’s decades-long pattern of mismanagement of Maunakea, one of our island’s most sacred spaces.”

After 33 protesters, including some elders, were arrested last week for blocking the road, the OHA issued a statement saying that the “Native Hawaiian community weeps today.”

Authorities said they were quickly issued citations and released.

“It goes deeper than just this particular protest,” said Pomaikai Canaday, a Hawaiian who is studying at Georgetown University. “It’s about cultural and native rights.”

Supporters of the telescope argue that the astronomy sector is an economic driver that sustains 1,400 jobs and $90 million annually on the state’s Big Island and $170 million statewide.

“Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope alone is estimated to be in excess of $1.4 billion and will use local union labor,” said the TMT organization. “TMT will spend an additional $1 million per year in its Workforce Pipeline Program to provide a pathway for kama’aina to get the high paying, high tech jobs of the future.”

“Kama’aina” is the Hawaiian word for the state’s residents, regardless of their ethnic status.

Also like Standing Rock, concerns have been raised about whether the older Native Hawaiians are being joined by younger arrivals who are more interested in partying than in joining a peaceful, respectful demonstration.

At a press conference last week, Mr. Ige said he had received reports about drug and alcohol use at the puuhonua, or “place of refuge,” prompting worries about public safety.

“Certainly some of the concerns of the activities of the puuhonua concern us,” Mr. Ige said. “We have reminded those that set up the puuhonua about the reports that we’re getting and asked them to enforce their own agreement and rules.”

He said state officials have been in regular contact with protest leaders but that the loosely organized demonstration has multiple factions and therefore multiple people in charge.

“There are many different groups that are represented in that crowd, and clearly in our conversations and reaching out to meet with them we have a hard time getting agreement when we have discussions,” Mr. Ige said. “Sometimes agreements are made that are not agreed by other groups, so it falls by the wayside.”

The Standing Rock demonstration ultimately fell apart when harsh winter storms made it impossible for protesters to remain outside. Weather conditions also could become a factor at Mauna Kea if the protest lasts long enough.

The name means “white mountain,” and despite Hawaii’s tropical climate, Mauna Kea does receive snowfall. There is even skiing in the winter.

The mountain is a taller geological structure than Mount Everest, though the majority of it is underwater. It was chosen as the site for the world’s largest telescope because of its geographic location, which already has more than a dozen high-powered observatory telescopes.

The combination of a peak almost 14,000 feet above sea level and a location in the middle of the ocean means Mauna Kea offers a view into the sky as unaffected as any on Earth by the lights, sounds and material “dust” of cities and other aspects of human civilization, even small amounts of which can interfere with astronomical instruments as delicate and powerful as the TMT.

According to the Native Hawaiians‘ traditional religion, Mauna Kea is the residence of the gods and access to the peak was taboo, permitted only to a few elder religious figures.

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