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Hawaiian leader seeks construction pause at sacred summit

    Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Peter Apo, right, spoke to reporters in Honolulu on Friday, as activist Walter Ritte listened.

Scientists hoping to see 13 billion light years away, giving them a look into the early years of the universe, are facing opposition from Native Hawaiian groups who say the construction site of a new telescope is on sacred land.

On Friday, a Native Hawaiian leader called on the state and the University of Hawaii to adopt a moratorium on construction after dozens of protesters were arrested the day before.

Peter Apo, a trustee for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said he’s asking Gov. David Ige and University of Hawaii President David Lassner to bring people together during a 30-day moratorium to work out a long-term solution.

"Hawaiians absolutely believe in science. How that plays out on this mountain is going to be a matter of getting the right set of people in the room to negotiate some sort of compromise that everyone can live with," Apo told reporters.

Stopping construction would be key, he said.

"You can’t even get to the discussion point until they stop construction," he said.

Apo said the state should revisit how it manages the summit, which belonged to the monarchy until the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. The state holds former kingdom lands in trust for the Hawaiian people.

The governor’s chief of staff, Mike McCartney, said the governor’s office is involved in discussions but must decline comment to protect the integrity of the talks and allow productive conversations to continue.

University spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the school welcomes all calls for more dialogue and is actively meeting and addressing the issue at the highest levels.

The dispute has pitted Native Hawaiians, who believe the telescope site is sacred because it is where their creation story begins, against scientists, who believe it’s an ideal location for one of the world’s largest telescopes because of its remote and sheltered position, nestled in the crater of a dormant volcano.

About 300 protesters gathered at the mountain Thursday, and police and state law enforcement arrested 20 people who tried to block a road leading to the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island. Eleven more were arrested atop the peak, the highest point in the state.

Project opponents question whether land appraisals were done correctly and whether Native Hawaiian groups were consulted, so they have tried to prevent construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope. Project leaders say they regret the arrests but safe access to the site needs to be preserved.

While the Native Hawaiian groups do not oppose the telescope itself, they disagree with constructing it on Mauna Kea.

"It is the burial grounds of some of our most sacred and revered ancestors," said Kealoha Pisciotta, a project opponent. "It is a place where we go for sanctuary and release from the world around us, and it is also the home of our god."

All of the highest points in the islands are considered the home of deities, she said.

Gary Sanders, the Thirty Meter Telescope project manager, said Friday his organization appreciates the support it’s received from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, including in 2009 when the agency endorsed the selection of Mauna Kea as the site for the observatory.

Sanders said the telescope has been communicating with the governor’s office and the university president. He stressed the telescope has been discussing the project with the public since 2008, when it filed a notice for an environmental impact statement.

The university leases the land at Mauna Kea from the state and then subleases it to the Thirty Meter Telescope project. A partnership of Canadian and U.S. universities plans to build the observatory along with institutions in China, India and Japan.

There are currently 13 telescopes at the summit, including some of the world’s most advanced. The first was built in the late 1960s.

The people arrested Thursday were trying to block trucks heading to the peak. Work got underway after the protesters were arrested and the path to the summit was cleared.

Police said they warned protesters who formed a roadblock Monday that anyone who obstructed the street would be arrested. Those apprehended Thursday were released after each posting bail of $250.

The observatory is expected to be operational by 2024, the same year a 39-meter telescope is expected to be completed in Chile.

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