MAUNA KEA, Hawaii >> Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim has struck a deal with the protesters on Mauna Kea, with Kim pledging there will be no construction activity by the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea and no police action to clear out the protesters during January and February provided the protesters move off Mauna Kea Access Road.
The kupuna, or elders, who have led the protest agreed to Kim’s proposal Thursday morning after meeting for about two hours to discuss it, and Kim announced the access road will be cleared and open to the public on Saturday. However, protest leader Noe Noe Wong-Wilson said the TMT opponents remain determined that the telescope will never be built.
“We are all here committed to protect our mauna. That has not changed,” Wong-Wilson told reporters in a news conference at the protest site shortly before noon Thursday. “So we send that strong message out to the lahui (nation) and to everybody who has stood with us, whether from far or from near, from around the world. We are winning this, guys. We are winning this.”
That pronouncement drew cheers from about 150 protesters and supporters who had gathered on the road Thursday morning to chant, dance hula and wait for word on the next moves by the state, county and TMT.
The agreement between Kim and the protesters was a dramatic reversal from just a week earlier, when a state law enforcement officer set a new deadline for the protesters to clear the road. Lino Kamakau, branch chief of the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Conservation and Resource Management, warned the protesters Dec. 19 they had until Thursday to clear the road or face arrest.
Kim said in an interview the new agreement was triggered in part by a news release issued by Gov. David Ige on Dec. 19 claiming that state officials are supporting the county as the county attempts to clear Mauna Kea Access Road so that TMT construction can proceed.
That statement from Ige was mocked by some county officials, who noted the state reimbursed the counties for millions of dollars in police overtime and other expenses related to the protests. If clearing the Mauna Kea standoff was truly the responsibility of Hawaii County, it is unlikely the state would be so generous in paying the tab for the operation, they said.
Kim said the county actually has had no authority on the access road, and “everybody knows that.” Kim said he called Ige to confirm that Ige believes the responsibility for clearing the road now rests with the county, and Ige agreed that it does.
That same news release from Ige said the TMT is not prepared to move forward with construction “at this time,” so Kim said he contacted Gordon Squires, TMT vice president for external affairs. Squires assured Kim that there would be no construction activity on the mountain for at least the next two months.
Kim then offered his personal assurance to the protesters that TMT will not move forward with construction on Mauna Kea for at least two months, and requested that the protesters clear the road to provide full public access.
Mauna Kea Access Road has been closed since July 15, and opponents of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope established a blockade on the road to prevent TMT equipment from reaching the summit area. The protesters believe construction of TMT on Mauna Kea would amount to desecration of a mountain that many Hawaiians consider sacred.
Supporters of the project, including Ige, say TMT has secured all of the necessary permits from the state and county, and has the right to proceed with construction. Construction of the telescope remains stalled by the protests, which have now lasted more than five months.
A statement released Thursday by the TMT opponents said, “In response to the mayor’s commitment, the kupuna will open the road for safety reasons. They will remain in place alongside Maunakea Access Road with the full support of the Pu‘uhonua and will be prepared to respond to any threat of construction by TMT in the future.”
The protesters added that “we would like to remind everyone to remain vigilant and steadfast, as Aunty Noe Noe reminded us today, ‘if there are any signs of construction, we’ll be right back in the middle of the road. We are committed and we will not leave Maunakea until the TMT leaves Hawaii.’”
House Speaker Scott Saiki, who is a longtime TMT supporter, suggested Kim may be misrepresenting the views of the TMT organization. Kim should clarify whether the statements Kim cites from TMT are the statements of individuals who do not have authority to speak for the TMT board, Saiki said.
Specifically, Saiki said he does not believe the TMT board has taken a position on the idea of delaying construction until after February.
“Harry Kim does a disservice to the public when he distorts the facts and attributes inaccurate statements to other people and entities,” Saiki said. “He should be very careful in how he characterizes the statements and positions of others.”
During the pause in the standoff on the mountain, Kim said he plans to solicit “select people” to come together “and then try to get some discussion on where do we go from here.” He said he will seek “professional people to guide us” and help with that process, but said he does not like the word “mediator.”
Kim said he will not necessarily be directly involved in that process. “I don’t know who is going to be in that meeting. I’m going to get people that are in this field. How do we get the sides together? Who should be on it and how should it be conducted?”
As for the protesters’ claim that the new agreement amounts to a victory for the TMT opponents, Kim said that doesn’t trouble him.
He noted that the protesters are deeply fatigued after more than five months of protests over Mauna Kea, and “if we don’t get this resolved as a people, my goodness, do you realize this kind of thing can go on forever, and there will be no movement of any kind on that, good or bad? And that’s what I’m trying to resolve.”
“If they see this as a victory, that’s more than fine with me, because to me the victory is a halt of this growing polarization of people,” Kim said. “It just depends what you’re measuring. I consider it a major victory, too. Now maybe we can get together.”
Kim said it is possible the new agreement with the protesters will be extended for longer than two months. Kim said he told Squires he wants more time to try to work out a peaceful solution to the protests, but Squires said he would need to consult with the TMT board about the possibility of a longer delay.
The state officially “reopened” Mauna Kea Access Road to the general public last week, and the protesters have been allowing tourists, tour companies and the public to reach the summit area via a dirt track alongside the access road. However, the protesters vowed to block access for any TMT construction equipment.
The Kim administration announced Thursday that use of the access road will now be limited for a time to telescope personnel, ranchers, conservation workers, hunters and cultural practitioners while the protesters clear their tents and possessions off the road.
The road will reopen to the general public Saturday, which coincides with the reopening of the Hale Pohaku Visitor Center, according to the Kim administration’s announcement.