The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protest against a billion-dollar telescope in Hawaii grows to 1,000 people, leading to brief arrests

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the base of Hawaii’s tallest mountain to protest the construction of a giant telescope on land that some Native Hawaiians consider sacred. (Caleb Jones/AP)

The protest is growing against the construction of a billion-dollar telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Between 300 and 500 protesters came out on Monday — some chaining themselves to metal grates in the road. By Wednesday, that number ballooned to about 1,000 and brief arrests were made.

Thirty-three Native Hawaiian elders and one caregiver were issued citations and then released, according to Dan Dennison, senior communications manager at the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Gov. David Ige (D) signed an emergency proclamation Wednesday expanding the authority of law enforcement at the site.

Ongoing protests have interfered with construction, which was slated to begin Monday after years of deliberation and protest.

To Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is a sacred place. But to astronomers, it is one of the best places on Earth to observe space. Mauna Kea was chosen in 2009 for the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope, named for the diameter of its mirror, because of its elevation and clear skies. The telescope will be 18 stories tall and will provide astronomers an opportunity to better observe planets and stars forming, galaxies and black holes.

Peaceful protests began during a groundbreaking ceremony in 2014. In 2015, they prevented construction from beginning.

The Hawaii Supreme Court later affirmed a decision by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources to grant a building permit. Then, in June 2019, the agency allowed the TMT to move further into construction, according to the TMT International Observatory.

“We do not want this [telescope] on this mountain,” Walter Ritte, one of the activists, told Hawaii News Now. “This mountain represents more than just their building they want to build. This mountain represents the last thing they want to take that we will not give them.”

Operations at the existing observatories on the Mauna Kea summit were suspended on Tuesday afternoon and they were still unoccupied as of Thursday. There are currently 13 telescopes at the site. The altitude of the summit, paired with “uncertain access to and from the facilities,” pose safety concerns for staff, Richard Matsuda, the chief of operations at the W.M. Keck Observatory, told reporters.

Almost immediately after Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959, American scientists decided the summit of Mauna Kea was one of the best places on Earth to observe space. The mountain “is a deeply sacred place that is revered in Hawaiian traditions,” according to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. “It’s regarded as a shrine for worship, as a home to the gods.”

Newly owned by the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, Mauna Kea was leased to the University of Hawaii and other groups for the construction of observatories.

“We’re losing all of the things that we’re responsible for as Hawaiians,” Ritte told Hawaii News Now. “We’re responsible for our oceans, we’re responsible for our land, we’re responsible for our future generations.”

The University of Hawaii, which holds a lease for the land the telescopes are built on, said it wants to engage a multitude of perspectives in the stewardship of the mountain going forward.

“We’re trying to have as many conversations as possible with as many different stakeholders as possible,” university spokesman Daniel Meisenzahl said.

Mailani Neal, a PhD student at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, became interested in astronomy while she was learning about Hawaiian oceanic navigation and the traditional use of the stars as a child. She has supported the construction of the TMT since she was in high school.

“I’m very proud to identify myself as a Native Hawaiian,” Neal said. “At the same time, I’m also a scientist, I’m an astronomer and I believe that these two aspects of me can coexist. And I believe that astronomy and the culture can coexist on Mauna Kea.”

No arrests were made on Monday, and those who had chained themselves to the grate were allowed to leave voluntarily, according to Hawaiian authorities.

After Monday’s protests, Ige wrote on Facebook that the day had ended peacefully and that he was committed to keeping everyone safe.

“To that end, a strong line of communication and respect between law enforcement and the protest leaders has been established,” the statement said.

TMT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said he could not comment about starting construction because of safety and security reasons. “We hope the protests remain peaceful and lawful as work begins,” Ishikawa said.

In case the site does not in fact work out, there is a backup plan to build the telescope on La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands.