Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope vowed Thursday to take their case to the Hawaii Supreme Court following the approval of the project’s construction permit by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.
Others put out a call over social media asking followers to be prepared to go into nonviolent battle over Mauna Kea.
“They’ll have to get past me and many other people first,” said Kaho‘okahi Kanuha, one of the leaders of the protesters who helped fend off the $1.4 billion project near the mountain’s summit in 2015.
But it was unclear Thursday when the California-based nonprofit TMT International Observatory would be able to begin construction of what has been described as one of the most powerful telescopes in the world.
TMT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said it was premature to answer the question of when, saying officials would regroup and evaluate the potential legal issues that lay ahead, including a likely appeal and a separate challenge to the project’s sublease.
The BLNR, by a 5-2 vote Thursday, approved the recommendation of retired Judge Riki May Amano to approve the Conservation District Use Permit (CDUP) allowing construction of the 18-story observatory.
The move comes one week after a final hearing in which the 23 petitioners involved in the project’s contested case proceeding presented their final arguments.
In a news release, the board said the vote reflects the state’s responsibility of striking a balance between Native Hawaiian traditional and cultural practices and other stakeholders.
“This was one of the most difficult decisions this board has ever made,” Chairwoman Suzanne Case said. “The members greatly respected and considered the concerns raised by those opposed to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.”
The board adopted 43 conditions to the permit, including the ones found in Gov. David Ige’s “path forward” 10-point plan requiring the University of Hawaii to decommission three existing telescopes, to restrict any future development to existing sites and to make the TMT the last new observatory on Mauna Kea.
In a news conference Thursday, Ige told reporters he was proud of the Land Board and called the decision-making process fair and rigorous.
“I’m glad that the process was completed and that we are able to move to the next steps,” Ige said.
But asked whether construction would be able to proceed, he said it’s up to the high court.
Pledge of balance
If and when the project does go forward, Ige pledged to balance the rights of potential protesters to demonstrate on the mountain with access rights for the project’s developers.
“Just as in the previous situation, we are committed to assure and protect the rights of individuals to claim and state their voice, their opinion on the project,” he said. “At the same time, we are prepared to assure access to those who are permitted to proceed.”
Kealoha Pisciotta, leader of the Mauna Kea Hui, the group that has led the TMT fight in court, said she was disappointed. The hasty dismissal of anti-TMT arguments and relatively fast decision-making gives the appearance of a preordained vote intended to accommodate the TMT’s construction target date in April, she said.
“We are the ones who were violated, not the TMT. They’re not the victim,” she said. “It appears this agency will only do what’s right through litigation.”
Pisciotta said not only will the decision be appealed to the state Supreme Court, but she is confident of victory, either on the merits of the case or on due-process issues.
“It’s all smoke and mirrors folks! Defects are throughout the record,” added former Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee and TMT petitioner Clarence Ku Ching on social media Thursday. “An appeal will be great fun! Don’t go away folks! The fun is just beginning!”
Kanuha, who has joined a new group calling itself Hawai‘i Unity and Liberation Institute, or HULI, said he is not surprised by the board’s vote.
“Today’s announcement was about a decision that was made months, if not years, ago. It doesn’t make it any less disappointing,” he said. “The BLNR had one more chance to get it right, and they failed miserably.”
In a news release HULI issued Thursday afternoon, the group said that “hundreds, if not thousands of Hawaiians will be forced to put our personal responsibilities, goals and dreams on the side to take a stand of resistance on Maunakea to protect our sacred and national lands, our cultural and national identity along with our dignity and our humanity as a people.”
HULI members include vocal Aloha Aina warriors Kaleikoa Ka‘eo, Kahele Dukelow, Camille Kalama, Andre Perez and Walter Ritte.
The release went on to say, “We have once again been left with no choice but to resist and to take matters back into our own hands. Though it will not be easy, we will organize, strategize and exercise our unrelinquished rights and claims to our national lands. Any attempts by TMT, the illegitimate state of Hawaii or the university to ascend Maunakea will be met with peaceful, non-violent resistance.”
‘Fitting and fair’
But permit applicant University of Hawaii issued a statement saying the the decision represents “a fitting and fair reflection of an issue that has divided many in the community who care deeply about Maunakea.”
“Maunakea is precious to all of Hawaii, and we know that science and culture can synergistically coexist there, now and into the future. We have a solid foundation to build on with the plans that have been developed and the work that has been done thanks to the dedication of the Office of Maunakea Management and the volunteer community members who have served on the Maunakea Management Board and the Kahu Ku Mauna council over the past 17 years,” the UH statement said.
“We know we have more to do, and we stand firmly committed to collaboratively build a global model of harmonious and inspirational stewardship that is befitting of the amazing cultural, natural, educational and scientific traditions and resources of Maunakea.”
TMT International Observatory Board Chairman Henry Yang issued a statement that included the following:
“We are greatly encouraged by BLNR’s decision today to grant the CDUP. Following this approval, TIO will continue to respect state procedures and to comply fully with applicable legislation and regulation. In moving forward, we will listen respectfully to the community in order to realize the shared vision of Maunakea as a world center for Hawaiian culture, education, and science.”
Mauna Kea astronomer Thayne Currie, spokesman for the group Yes2TMT, added that the board’s decision is “right on the facts, right on the law and right for Hawaii. For example, requiring the university to decommission a few older telescopes in exchange for having TMT on Mauna Kea is a reasonable compromise that the vast majority of the community can get behind.”
Currie said he and others who are working hard to bring TMT to Hawaii respect the protesters’ passion. He invited them to “sit down together as neighbors and figure out how we all can win out from this situation.”
Amano made her recommendation in July after a 44-day hearing in which supporters argued TMT would provide educational and economic opportunities and opponents said it would desecrate the mountain.
The second hearing was required after the state Supreme Court in late 2015 invalidated an earlier permit issued by the board.
Earlier, protests disrupted the groundbreaking, and construction was halted a couple of times in 2015 by protesters who were arrested for blocking work crews.
TMT approval letter from the Hawaii BLNR by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd
Staff writer Nanea Kalani contributed to this report.