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Summit road reopened, restricted

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    Rangers turned vehicles away from the Mauna Kea Access Road above the visitor center on June 26.

The access road leading to the summit of Mauna Kea was reopened Monday afternoon after damage caused by protesters forced officials to shut down the road for more than two weeks.

The state had deemed the narrow 15-mile access road too hazardous after protesters opposed to construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope blocked the roadway with rocks and boulders June 24.

The University of Hawaii, which leases and manages the summit area, reopened the road at 3 p.m. Monday but said access would be restricted under an emergency rule passed Friday by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.

The rule would prohibit access between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. to anyone not traveling in a vehicle on Mauna Kea Access Road. It also would ban camping gear, including sleeping bags and tents, within 1 mile of the road at any time.

A group of protesters, who call themselves protectors of the mountain, have maintained a 24-hour presence at the 9,200-foot level near the Mauna Kea visitor center for more than 100 days in an attempt to halt construction of the $1.4 billion TMT project.

At 18 stories high, the project, which would add to 13 observatories on the mountain, is expected to be one of the largest and most powerful ground-based telescopes in the world when it becomes operational in 2024.

The emergency rule and the reopening of the road mean construction work could soon resume. Caro­line Witherspoon, a spokes­woman for the TMT with Becker Communications, said Monday there still is no restart date for construction.

"The state seeks to provide safe access to Mauna Kea summit by all lawful users," Gov. David Ige said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the destructive actions of several individuals temporarily rendered the mountain road unsafe since June 24. I am pleased UH has reopened the road."

The university said vehicular access above the Hale Pohaku midlevel facilities would be restricted to four-wheel-drive vehicles. Two-wheel-drive vehicles will not be allowed past the end of the paved road at Hale Pohaku.

The visitor center and its restroom facilities will remain closed, UH said.

A spokeswoman for Ige said the governor is awaiting the paperwork from the Department of Land and Natural Resources and will sign off on the emergency rule once he receives it. The rule would then need to be filed with the Lieutenant Governor’s Office before taking effect.

Ige indicated his administration could engage the state’s National Guard unit if the ban is disregarded by protesters who have vowed to remain on the mountain.

"We just want to make sure that there is safe access to Mauna Kea. The numbers of people who were up there was really creating an unsafe situation, so we definitely want to make sure that we have the appropriate rules in place," Ige told reporters earlier Monday. "We are preparing plans for whatever might end up occurring."

That could include calling on the National Guard "if need be," Ige said, adding, "There’s no explicit plans at this point, but certainly." He previously had said that was not an option.

State Attorney General Doug Chin said last week that the emergency rule was prompted by problems created by the protesters, including blocking the road, defying authorities, threatening workers and putting undue stress and increased financial hardship on area resources.

Chin said the regulation is designed to promote safe access to the summit and re-establish order with a clear set of rules.

Protest leader Kaho‘o­kahi Kanuha did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.

Because the emergency rule is temporary, Ige said the state "will be working with the users and various advocates to look at long-term rules that we would want to have in place by the time the emergency rules expire."

UH law professor Williamson Chang contends the rule is unconstitutional, and is considering legal action against the state.

"It’s a thinly disguised way of letting TMT be built without any interference," Chang said. "That so-called interference was the chance for the protesters, or protectors, to have and engage in nonviolent dialogue, which was working. The rule doesn’t present a reason to cut off that First Amendment right."

He also questions DLNR’s authority to pass rules to prevent camping and access at night.

Chang, who represents two Native Hawaiian practitioners opposed to the TMT proj­ect, said he has twice filed a request with DLNR for a contested-case hearing to argue that the board violated procedural rules in passing the emergency rule.

"We’re contemplating our next step if we don’t hear back," he said. "The next step would be to sue in Circuit Court."

Chang said although he is Native Hawaiian, he’s not a religious practitioner.

"I do consider the mountain to be very special," he said. "And I’m very sympathetic with those who consider it sacred."

Star-Advertiser reporter Marcel Honoré contributed to this report.

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