Gov. David Ige said Tuesday he supports and will protect the rights of the builders of the Thirty Meter Telescope to proceed with construction on Mauna Kea, but he also announced the creation of a cultural council to restore balance between science and Native Hawaiian interests on the mountain.
In an afternoon news conference, Ige also said he supports the right of TMT opponents to peacefully protest on the mountain.
He called upon lessee University of Hawaii to do a better job of stewardship on Mauna Kea, including decommissioning at least 25 percent of the current telescopes on the mountain before TMT is operational, and returning at least 10,000 Mauna Kea acres not being used for astronomy to the state.
Construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope remains on hold while “protectors” continue to camp out at the 9,200-foot level, ready to block work vehicles. Thirty-one protesters were arrested April 2. TMT opponents say Mauna Kea is sacred ground to Native Hawaiians.
The 18-story TMT — to be operated by TMT International LLC with partners that include universities and astronomy institutions in United States, India, China, Japan and Canada — is expected to be the most powerful optical telescope in the world, capable of seeing more than 13 billion light-years away.
Ige said it is up to TMT and UH on what the next step for construction will be. But he made clear that he believes that the developers have satisfied their legal requirements and have the right to proceed.
"My review found that the TMT project took the appropriate steps and received the approvals needed to move forward," Ige said. "The project has the right to proceed with construction, and the state will support and enforce its right to do so. We also acknowledge the right to protest this activity. We will protect the right to a peaceful protest and will act to ensure public safety and the right to use our roads for lawful purposes."
Henry Yang, chairman of the TMT International Observatory Board, said in a statement that the board was grateful to Ige for "his statement of support for TMT’s right to proceed. We will work with the framework he has put forth.
"We know we have a lot of work ahead of us. We appreciate that there are still people who are opposed to the project, and we will continue to respectfully listen and work with them to seek solutions," Yang continued. "We also want to acknowledge and thank our many supporters on the Big Island and beyond."
In calling for a Mauna Kea Cultural Council, Ige said Hawaii and the UH have not done a good job as stewards of the mountain so far.
"In many ways, we have failed the mountain. Whether you see it from a cultural perspective or from a natural resource perspective, we have not done right by a very special place and we must act immediately to change that."
He said the Mauna Kea Cultural Council will work with the Department of Land and Natural Resources and his office so that all actions on the mountain are more "sensitive to and observant of the host culture."
He also criticized the university for its lack of leadership on Mauna Kea and called on the UH to take steps to remedy that failure.
UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the institution just learned of the governor’s requests and will work toward making them happen.
Kealoha Pisciotta, a longtime Big Island critic of the Thirty Meter Telescope, said she’s disappointed in Ige’s comments, which she said lacked substance. "It created this illusion that we’re going to do something without really doing much," she said, adding that his words will not prompt protesters to leave the mountain.
"He affirmed that they will move forward," she said. "The deep sadness I feel is that means our people will be arrested."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.