MAUNA KEA >> Keoki Salas and his girlfriend, Alexis Lincoln, have camped near the base of the Mauna Kea Access Road off and on for months, sleeping in a tent and preparing themselves for the three air horn blasts that would signal a police sweep to clear the road.
He drives trucks for a recycling company. She does the hiring for a
security company. They go to work and then come back to the camp in their free time.
When asked about their long commitment to the protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope, Salas uses a powerful, controversial word.
“You see plenty things, the corruption, and it’s just being brought to light with this movement, and that’s why I’m here,” he said. The access road has now been closed for more than three months as opponents of the TMT try to block construction of the project.
When telescope supporters look at the standoff on the mountain, they tend to see protesters who are ignoring the “rule of law” by illegally blocking the access road as Gov. David Ige, Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim and law enforcement officials anxiously search for a nonviolent way to reopen the access road.
But the protesters, who call themselves kia‘i or protectors of the mountain, see the dispute differently. There is a strong sense among them that the struggle over Mauna Kea has finally exposed systemic unfairness in public institutions that, among other injustices, allowed the TMT to win government approval.
For Salas, the “corruption” on display is the spectacle of law enforcement confronting the mostly Hawaiian protesters, which he views as the government serving the interests of a private entity, the TMT International Observatory.
That deep mistrust of the system helps explain how a relatively small group of anti-TMT activists suddenly attracted thousands of supporters to the mountain. It has helped to bind the TMT controversy to bitterness at the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy to anger at decades of delays by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to put thousands of Hawaiians on land.
It has all blended at the TMT protests, generating energy and manpower. Everyone expected protests against TMT, but the Hawaii political establishment was startled this year at the groundswell of support for the activists as they dug in, blockaded the access road, and delayed the start of construction.
“At this point, Hawaiians have had a long history of injustice being applied selectively to them, which gives the general public this idea of, like, ‘What’s wrong with the Hawaiians?’” said Kealoha Pisciotta, a longtime Hawaiian cultural practitioner who has opposed the TMT project for years. “It’s selectively targeted on Hawaiians, and the general public is now being able to see all of that corruption, and how it unfolds.
“We’re just trying to protect what we love and what we care about, the land and Hawaii, and we couldn’t get any justice in any of the three branches of government,” she said.
Promotion of astronomy on Mauna Kea has been a public policy goal for the ruling Hawaii Democrats for 50 years or more, with power players such as the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye working long and hard to reach this point.
Jobs have been created. Astonishing discoveries have been made on the mountain. The University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy is a powerhouse in the academic and research worlds. And perhaps most important for Hawaii astronomy boosters, Mauna Kea is now generally acknowledged to be one of the best places on the planet to do astronomy.
If there have been legal or cultural missteps over the decades, astronomy supporters tend to see them as inadvertent errors while the state pursued its strategy in support of scientific discovery and economic growth. And they say the university and the observatories do a much better job of managing the mountain today than they did 20 years ago.
But the protesters look at that same history and see government and private interests working together to manipulate the political system — or even violate the law — to support development of telescopes against the wishes of Hawaii’s indigenous people. To them, the history smacks of “corruption.”
A now-famous State Auditor’s report in 1998 that reviewed the management of Mauna Kea recalled a time in the 1960s when Hawaiian cultural practitioners were required to obtain conservation district use permits to worship on Mauna Kea, yet three observatories were allowed to build on the mountain without applying for conservation permits.
Then there was the revelation in a recent state Senate hearing that the state in 1964 built the Mauna Kea Access Road to the summit across Hawaiian Home Lands without the permission of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, and never compensated the commission for the land it took for the road. That road is now the epicenter of the anti-TMT protests.
The state finally agreed in 1995 to a land swap as compensation for homelands that were taken for roadways statewide, but apparently never delivered those promised lands to DHHL, according to Hawaiian Homes Commission Chairman William Aila. Some protesters say they plan to sue the state over that issue, and state Attorney General Clare Connors has said the state
is reviewing the matter of compensation.
Another blemish on the process was the decision by the Board of Land and Natural Resources in 2011 to issue the conservation district permit for TMT before it held a contested case hearing to allow opponents to present their case against the project. The final decision was made, and hearing arguments against TMT was a formality.
The state Supreme Court on Dec. 2, 2015, voided that conservation permit and required the Land Board to redo the contested case process, but the final outcome was the same: The board held a new contested case hearing and then issued a new conservation permit for TMT in the fall of 2017.
It was obvious the telescope opponents would return to court to attack the new conservation permit, and the following spring Ige and state lawmakers approved Act 48 to create a fast-track process for appealing challenges to conservation district permits straight to the state Supreme Court.
That new law allowed developers on conservation lands to get final decisions on challenges to their projects much more quickly, and was widely understood at the state Capitol as a legislative maneuver to help speed the progress of TMT.
Most recently, the TMT opponents produced a video noting that the telescope sponsors pledged to set aside $1 million a year for 50 years to cover the cost of restoring the telescope site on Mauna Kea to its original condition when the observatory is removed.
That implies the telescope will remain on the mountain for at least 50 years, but the University of Hawaii’s master lease for the entire Mauna Kea astronomy hub, including the TMT site, expires in 2033, just 13 years from now.
The TMT will cost about $1.4 billion and take another decade to build, which means the sponsors of the telescope plan to spend the next 10 years building a hugely expensive observatory on the strength of a master lease that expires in just 13 years. Negotiations are underway to arrange for a new master lease, but nothing has been officially decided.
The video by the TMT opponents asks, rhetorically, “What do they know about lease renewals that we don’t?”
Kaho‘okahi Kanuha, one of the Mauna Kea protest leaders, told an audience recently that “all the dirty BVDs of the state and all these different agencies, they’re being hung out to dry, and they’re on the line, and everybody’s seen them, skid marks and everything, and there’s no denying it.” BVD is slang for underwear.
But those historical highlights do not much impress TMT supporters such as Samuel Wilder King II, who points out the protesters are acting illegally themselves by closing the road and blocking construction.
The TMT opponents used the legal process for years to battle the telescope project — until they didn’t get their way, King said. Then the activists turned to civil disobedience and began breaking the law with the attitude that “‘We’re going to go social media tactics. We’re going to blow this up and make it look like we’re all being oppressed,’ which they know what they’re doing. They’re very good at this.”
The protests prompted a law enforcement response that has already cost the state upwards of $9 million, and, King asked, “When are the protesters going to take responsibility for that?
“I’m not listening to their complaints about the process when they’re breaking the law. You’re standing there breaking the law, so whatever. You’re being hypocrites about the legal process,” King said. “You may feel like the process isn’t fair to you, but I feel like the process isn’t being fair to me right now, and no one seems to care.”
King is the great-grandson of Samuel Wilder King, territorial governor of Hawaii from 1953 to 1957. He is also the grandson of Samuel P. King, who lost the governor’s race to John A. Burns in 1970 and was later a longtime federal judge in Honolulu.
Gordon Squires, TMT vice president for external relations, notes that “TMT diligently followed the regulatory process laid out by the state for the last 10 years. This included numerous public meetings, an approved environmental impact statement, two contested cases, two State Supreme Court rulings and the issuance of all necessary permits to proceed with construction on Maunakea.”
During the protests it became clear that “there are a number of larger issues beyond TMT for which Maunakea has become a flashpoint. Other conversations about these larger issues are taking place, and we support that,” Squires said in a written statement. “But it is clear that the reasonable expectations of everyone — including residents, businesses, visitors and government — are that the laws of the state and counties will be followed and enforced. When these expectations are not met, there is an unfortunate appearance that the system is not functioning.”
As for the issue of whether the master lease will be extended, “we believe that the observatories at the forefront of scientific research in 2033 will continue at Maunakea under a new master lease consistent with the principles of sustainability, responsible management and stewardship,” Squires said in a written
response to questions.
“We believe this to be in the best interest of the state and the people of Hawaii,” Squires said. Scott Ishikawa, a spokesman for TMT, said the telescope sponsors have not received any guarantee that the lease will be extended.
But the state has started work on a new master lease. Doug Simons, a member of the Mauna Kea Management Board and executive director of the Canada-France Hawaii Telescope, said work on the environmental impact statement for the lease renewal is underway, along with efforts to define the terms and conditions of a new master lease.
The Mauna Kea master plan and the comprehensive management plan for Mauna Kea will also need to be updated, and the goal is to submit the entire package to the Land Board for consideration in early 2021, he said.
Simons expects the effort to renew the lease will trigger more controversy, including a contested case hearing, and the issue likely will be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Allowing time for appeals, he estimated the new master lease could be approved in 2023.
TMT’s decision to proceed with construction before the lease is extended makes sense to King.
“I think there should be an expectation the lease will be extended. I expect the lease to be extended,” King said. “People want to say, ‘Oh, the process is rigged for them and it’s bad.’ It’s only rigged against them when they don’t get what they want. Whenever they get what they want, suddenly it’s all fair and dandy.”
In the meantime, Ige announced last month the nominations of two new members to the Land Board, replacing members Keith “Keone” Downing and Stanley Roehrig. Those were the only members of the board who voted against the conservation district permit for the TMT in 2017.
Pisciotta said efforts by TMT and the state to make the process appear to be fair “are disingenuous at best,” adding, “They’re not attempting to actually find a pono path with the Hawaiian people. They’re just attempting to create the illusion that they are, so that the kind of average, kind of uneducated public thinks that they are. And that uneducated public is becoming much more educated, and if they don’t start taking a cue from the kanakas here, the people of Hawaii are going to lose a lot.”