Monte “Pat” Wright isn’t taking sides in the standoff over construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. But he strongly desires a resolution as someone caught in the middle of the protracted dispute.
The owner of tour firm Mauna Kea Summit Adventures said nine of his 12 employees had to be laid off since the only road to the summit was closed by Gov. David Ige July 15 and blocked by TMT opponents since then.
“This is really killing us,” Wright said. “If this continues, we’re going to see people lose their homes.”
Wright isn’t criticizing demonstrators on the mountain. In fact, for the last couple of weeks he’s used his tour vans, which would typically take 28 people up the mountain every evening for a sunset and star-gazing experience, as a shuttle between Kona and the TMT opposition camp about 7,000 feet below Mauna Kea’s summit.
Still, Wright’s business is taking a painful hit, and he’s not alone.
The blockage of the summit road and obstruction of TMT construction — now nearly
30 days old — is taking an economic toll on Hawaii island.
All 11 active observatories atop Mauna Kea had been idled over the past four weeks because of the demonstrator blockade on the summit access road.
A 2010 University of Hawaii at Hilo report said these telescopes, which exclude two being decommissioned, cost $70 million a year to operate. That’s $5.8 million a month representing economic contributions that likely are higher today given inflation since 2010.
Not all of this spending, however, disappeared.
Jessica Dempsey, deputy director for the operator of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, said she’s not aware of layoffs by any of the Mauna Kea observatories that collectively employ more than 500 people on the mountain and at operating bases in Hilo and Waimea.
Dempsey said some employees were put to work in other ways. Also, several emergency maintenance crews were allowed to pass through the blockade.
On Friday, the observatories
announced that they “will attempt” to restore normal operations after demonstrators agreed a little over a week ago to grant telescope operators use of a rough blockade bypass route over a lava field that the state improved with cinders and cones Wednesday.
Dempsey said there had been frustration over the halt of valuable research and equipment
upgrades from being done.
“These are some of the most productive scientists in the world,” she said. “They are very frustrated at not being able to do their work.”
Dempsey even said that some students at UH and schools abroad haven’t been getting project data they need to graduate.
Then there are businesses like Wright’s, which depend on summit access.
Mauna Kea Summit Adventures is one of eight companies with state permits to transport tourists to the top of Mauna Kea for spectacular views and stargazing. Many of these companies offer other tours and have been able to adjust during the standoff.
But Wright, who started his business in 1982, said his operation
taking 28 passengers up the mountain daily is stalled.
“There’s no way to recoup it,” he said. “Mauna Kea is the only thing we do. We are 100% shut down.”
Wright said he’s neutral about TMT but can’t imagine any way the standoff ends unless TMT’s
international nonprofit consortium of research institutions abandons the development effort that has
already cost $450 million and 11 years overcoming legal challenges and obtaining all regulatory approvals for the $1.4 billion project.
If TMT withdraws, there will be even bigger, longer-term and partly incalculable economic impacts.
The most immediate and direct impact from not building TMT would be foregone jobs, taxes and spending on goods and services connected with the project.
TMT’s developer expects to create 300 construction jobs locally to build the telescope over eight years.
As for TMT’s $1.4 billion construction cost, most of that involves work to be done outside Hawaii, including the dome enclosure from Canada and the telescope structure from Japan.
TMT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said at least 20% to 30%, or $280 million to $420 million, would be spent in Hawaii — mostly on the Big
Operating TMT is projected to cost $25.8 million a year, including $13 million for labor based on 140 full-time employees, or $92,857 per worker, UH Hilo said in the project’s 2010 environmental impact study.
UH Hilo also said in the report that an instrument development office in Hawaii was planned in conjunction with TMT and expected to manage and coordinate construction of new instruments worth up to $20 million a year.
Local economist Paul Brewbaker said there’s a connected bigger risk that astronomy in Hawaii will wither if the industry is blocked from making advances with new projects like TMT.
“The entire statewide astronomy research complex, the nexus, has been impaired to one extent or another,” he said in an email.
According to a 2014 University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization report, the astronomy industry spent $88 million locally in 2012 and about 70% of that, or $59 million, was on the Big Island.
Brewbaker said the $88 million figure from 2012 would be about $100 million today with inflation. Losing that contribution would be like losing every coffee and macadamia nut farm in Hawaii in terms of annual crop value.
If you add in other spending either indirectly supported or induced by astronomy in Hawaii, the statewide economic impact was $168 million in 2012, UHERO’s report said.
Brewbaker said this indirect and induced spending from high-
paying astronomy jobs that support jobs outside astronomy equates to 2.37 times the direct industry output — meaning the loss would be $20 million and 100 jobs if astronomy ceased on Hawaii island for a month. “So, yeah, it gets real fast,” he said.
Brewbaker added that the Big Island has more economic challenges than Oahu. He said per
capita personal income for Hawaii County used to be even with the national average 45 years ago but is now 25% below the nation despite the addition of high-paying jobs in astronomy during this time.
The other side of the argument over TMT is that no amount of economic benefit is worth what many believe is desecrating a place that some Native Hawaiians consider a sacred connection to their ancestors.
This view, which has led as many as 3,000 people to gather on the mountain since the standoff began, isn’t new. And neither are the touted economic benefits of astronomy as an industry that also furthers understanding of the universe and space exploration.
A Honolulu Advertiser story in 1979, when there were only six telescopes on Mauna Kea, explained the clash over development of a pristine, revered place with $60 million to $70 million in equipment that cost $7 million a year to operate.
“The argument has ping-ponged back and forth for years,” the story said. “It has not been resolved; rather it seems to have grown more involved.”
Herbert Matayoshi, who was Hawaii County mayor in 1979, opposed adding more telescopes to Mauna Kea. Yet seven more were added since then.
Current Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, who accepted an invitation by Ige last month to coordinate state and county efforts for allowing TMT to proceed after 38 demonstrators were arrested July 17, said he supports TMT as a scientific and economic resource.
“I support TMT if done in a good way and right way … as a tool to help the people of this island,” Kim said at a press conference July 29. “I support TMT as an alternate (to) tourism … . I don’t want to be like Maui, Kauai and Oahu of such dependency on the resort industry that is good but (too) dominant. We need alternatives.”
Meanwhile, TMT opposition leaders say they are prepared to peacefully resist efforts to start construction until the project is relocated to a less desirable alternate site in the Canary Islands off Africa.