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Artist’s conception of the Thirty Meter Telescope, now under construction in Hawaii.

Artist’s conception of the Thirty Meter Telescope, now under construction in Hawaii.

Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation via Wikimedia Commons

In Hawaii, protests force pause in construction of world’s largest telescope

The governor of Hawaii yesterday brokered a 1-week pause in the construction of the world’s largest telescope atop the Mauna Kea volcano in the wake of protests by Native Hawaiian activists, who say the project is desecrating sacred land.

“There will be no construction activities this week,” Governor David Ige (D) said Tuesday at a news conference announcing the pause in work on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). “This will give us some time to engage in further conversations with the various stakeholders that have an interest in Mauna Kea and its sacredness and its importance in scientific research and discovery going forward.”

Ige’s announcement came after police last week arrested 31 protesters who had blocked a road to the TMT construction site near the summit of the 4200-meter-high volcano. The arrests sparked outrage among Native Hawaiian activists, with groups holding rallies across the state. Ige has said the pause is needed to give the various parties time for discussion.

Protesters expressed skepticism about Ige’s effort and say they are prepared to remain hunkered down on Mauna Kea’s cold and forbidding slopes until the project is stopped. “Regardless if they stop construction for one week, it doesn’t matter … [the project is] still illegal, it’s still desecration, and we still oppose it,” says Kahookahi Kanuha, an organizer and spokesman for the protesters who has spent most of the past 2 weeks at their mountainside encampment. The moratorium, he says, is simply an attempt to “save face” and stall for time in a bid to wear down the protesters. Construction of the TMT should not have started, he argued, while legal challenges to the project remain unresolved in state courts.

In a statement, Ige said he was calling for the moratorium so that he could “evaluate the situation from multiple perspectives.” He pledged to work with leadership at the University of Hawaii, which administers the sublease of summit lands to the TMT, and the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs to seek a resolution to the conflict.

TMT Spokesman Gordon Squires confirmed that the shutdown of the project—which has completed a 7-year public review process and was approved to proceed last month—was not imposed by the governor’s office, but agreed to by the international consortium that is developing the telescope.

Both astronomers and Native Hawaiians see Mauna Kea as a special place. The TMT is sited within a 212-hectare reserve that was set aside by the state of Hawaii for astronomy projects in the 1960s, as a result of its altitude and dark skies. There are already 13 telescopes within the reserve, but the enormous scale of the TMT—which, including parking and roads, would cover a total area of 2 hectares and stand 18 stories above ground—would dwarf them all.

Traditionally, Native Hawaiians consider Mauna Kea to be a sacred realm inhabited by several major gods and a place that, traditionally, could be visited by humans only for special ceremonies. Today, many also believe the summit is mismanaged by the University of Hawaii and the state. Although the reserve is set aside for science, critics note that the mountain is often crowded with commercial stargazing tours. The summit is also an ecologically fragile area, TMT opponents note, and is the location of hundreds of archaeological sites.

TMT backers, however, say the telescope has gone through a careful review since it applied for permits in 2008. “The TMT site was selected with great care and respect,” Project Manager Gary Sanders said in a statement. “There are no archaeological shrines or burial sites within TMT’s project site.” And there has been “ongoing dialogue and meaningful discussion” among parties with various points of view during the process, he added.

Such assurances mean little to the protesters. “Our ultimate goal is to stop the construction, stop the desecration of our mountain,” Kanuha says. Although he and his allies support ongoing legal challenges to the TMT, he says they have little faith in the courts and are employing more direct, grassroots opposition. They hope a long-term blockade will cause costly delays and eventually force the TMT’s international group of funders to abandon the project.

At the same time, Kanuha and others hope to use the TMT protests to highlight another cause: Hawaiian sovereignty. Some activists contend the islands have been illegally occupied by the United States since the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, and “the people of Hawaii have never stood on a more grand, more noticeable platform” to discuss that issue, Kanuha says.

In the meantime, University of Hawaii Spokesman Dan Meisenzahl noted that the university is in the process of seeking a 65-year extension of its lease on the summit from the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. “Part of that ask is to promise that there will be no more development,” he says. “TMT will be the last telescope on the mountain.”