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Ige announces closure of access road to Mauna Kea summit

    Protesters gesture while exclaiming "Ku Ki ai Mauna" upon returning from Mauna Kea summit access road on Thursday on the slope of Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island. Governor David Ige announced that the Mauna Kea Summit access road is closed indefinitely to the public. Construction on the Thirty Meter Telescope was set to resume June 24, but opponents of the construction successfully blocked access to the summit after an hours long standoff with DLNR and Hawaii police.

PHOTO GALLERY: Activists block TMT

Following the arrest of a dozen protestors who blocked construction crews from reaching the summit of Mauna Kea on Wednesday, Gov. David Ige said Thursday that both the road to the summit and the Mauna Kea visitors center is open only for essential purposes until further notice.

The area will be accessible to park rangers, astronomers and observatory workers. Also, hiking trails will remain open to the public.   

The Office of Mauna Kea Management worked with volunteers to remove boulders and rock structures that had been placed along the gravel road that leads to the summit, where the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope is planned to be built.

“The state continues to assess and monitor the situation to ensure the safety of the people on Mauna Kea,” Ige’s office said in a news release.

The Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan authorizes the University of Hawaii to close the road to the summit “in the event of hazardous conditions and emergencies,” Ige’s office said.

Protesters arrested while preventing construction of a giant telescope posted bail, were released from police custody and were returning to the mountain they say they’re protecting from desecration.

Hundreds of protesters who flocked to the Big Island’s Mauna Kea on Wednesday successfully prevented workers from reaching the site for the planned $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope. The workers turned their vehicles around when they encountered boulders in the road leading to the site.

The nonprofit company building the telescope near the mountain’s summit said construction will resume "when the issue is resolved." The governor’s office said the road would need to be cleared Thursday and construction would have to be put on hold. It was unclear when there might be another effort to resume.

Construction stopped for about two months after the arrests of 31 protesters in April. Opposition has been mounting against building one of the world’s largest telescopes on land that many held sacred.

A dozen people were arrested Wednesday, charged with obstructing and then released after posting $250 bail. Bail was $1,000 for one person who had a previous arrest, police said.

"Sorry, just got out of jail," Kahookahi Kanuha, one of the protest leaders, said in a text message to The Associated Press. He said he was waiting for the last person to be released from the Hilo police station and they would return to the mountain, more than 40 miles away.

Protesters said a group of them plan to continue camping on the mountain in case workers try to restart construction.

The road up the mountain remained closed Thursday, a day after the University of Hawaii, which is responsible for Mauna Kea stewardship, closed it for safety reasons. University spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said some protesters refused to leave.

Boulders and man-made rock walls in the road have made it dangerous, he said: "It’s kind of like an obstacle course."

Protester Walter Ritte said he doesn’t know of any tactics that involved placing the rocks in the road.

"The Hawaiians are saying that the rocks were put there by the Menehune the night before," he said, referring to the Hawaiian legend of small people who worked at night building fish ponds, roads and temples.

"Hawaiians would rather eat rocks than succumb to suppression," Ritte said. "It was pretty significant to us that it was the rocks of Mauna Kea that created our victory for the day."

A ranger negotiated with protesters Thursday to take down three rock walls so observatory workers could get up the mountain to do maintenance, Meisenzahl said. There are 13 other telescopes on Mauna Kea.

Protester Deborah J. Ward said she sensed conflicting feelings from state law enforcement officers, who she said likely have friends and relatives who oppose the telescope.

"I saw officers crying and expressing their regret for wearing the uniform," she said, adding that she saw some of them exchange honi, the traditional forehead-to-forehead greeting, with protesters.

Ritte said some officers were aggressive.

"They pushed Hawaiians to the top of the mountain," he said. "We cannot lose this battle."

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