The protest roadblocks that kept telescope construction equipment off the summit of Mauna Kea from 2015 to 2019 are on hold, but the cultural clash over the future of Hawaiʻi’s most sacred mountain is far from over. Despite the protests’ clear message of community opposition, proponents of California’s Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) continue to push their Hawaiʻi plans, even as they pursue permits for an alternative site in the Canary Islands. They’ve tapped old allies in the state legislature and recruited a potential new ally in the federal government, the National Science Foundation (NSF). But the “mountain protectors” (Ku Kiaʻi Mauna, or Kiaʻi), composed of Native Hawaiians, environmentalists, and other islanders, remain undaunted. (All photos by Tom Peek except where otherwise noted.)
The Kiaʻi protests and roadblocks were the latest chapter in a decades-long struggle to protect one of the holiest places in Hawaiian tradition—home of revered deities, a sacred lake, ancient shrines, the highest burial site in Polynesia, and the place of Native Hawaiians’ creation story. Its spectacular alpine desert is habitat for plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.
But 14,000-foot Mauna Kea is also one of the last Northern Hemisphere mountaintops with dark skies still unsullied by air and light pollution and suitable for cutting-edge astronomy. Numerous telescopes have been built there since 1964, including several of the world’s largest, such as California’s Twin 10-meter Kecks.
Peaceful protests draw worldwide attention and support
Kiaʻi protests part of a larger movement
The mountain controversy is one of many growing out of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance, a movement to restore Native Hawaiian language, cultural practices and sacred sites in the decades following Hawaiʻi’s statehood in 1959. Mauna Kea is one of those sites, a wao akua or “realm of the gods,” long revered by cultural practitioners, including traditional Hawaiian astronomers (kilo hoku).
Renaissance-inspired scholarship on Hawaiʻi’s turbulent colonial history—including the American-supported coup d’état in 1893—sparked calls to actually enforce Hawaiians’ existing legal rights and eventually reestablish some form of native sovereignty. On Mauna Kea the question became who rightfully owns the summit, which is “ceded” crown land confiscated after the coup and transferred to the state in 1959.
Islander opposition ignored for decades
Decades of public hearings followed, but astronomers and state officials repeatedly ignored concerns expressed by cultural practitioners, environmentalists, and other islanders, forcing them to seek relief from the courts as well as demonstrate in mass gatherings. For years, the courts sided with the islanders until a 2018 Hawaiʻi Supreme Court decision validated TMT’s construction permit.
A growing concern now is that Hawaiʻi’s courts, like its other two branches of government, have become vulnerable to pressure from political and economic powerbrokers pushing for new island development. In the aftermath of the court’s 2018 decision, Mauna Kea protests on Hawaiʻi Island spread throughout the archipelago, including marches in Waikiki that each drew over 10,000 demonstrators.
Pressure to build escalates during the blockade hiatus
The Hawaiʻi clash is part of a larger, longstanding battle among astronomers themselves, a race for who will dominate the next phase of ground-based astronomy. The $2.4 billion TMT is competing with two other “Giant Optical Devices” (or “GODS”) now under construction on high mountains in Chile—the 30-meter Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and the 39-meter European’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). TMT’s financial backers include billionaire Intel founder Gordon Moore (its biggest donor), Caltech, the University of California and science organizations from the US, China, Japan, India and Canada.
In 2020, astronomers from the TMT and Giant Magellan joined forces to lobby the National Science Foundation to fund both telescopes, asking this US government agency for $850 million dollars for each cash-strapped project. With that level of federal “undertaking,” NSF can no longer argue that its longstanding financial and policy support for TMT does not trigger a federal EIS under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and a cultural consultation under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). TMT officials now assert that if they obtain additional NSF funding those two elaborate reviews will somehow change Native Hawaiians’ longstanding opposition.
Hawaiians have already made clear that won’t happen, and in a September 2020 letter to NSF, Kealoha Pisciotta and other Mauna Kea cultural practitioners and lineal descendants criticized the agency for repeatedly ignoring Hawaiians’ prior requests for a federal EIS and Section 106 consultation. It’s not the first time NSF has been criticized. Native Hawaiians and Sierra Club warned NSF about TMT’s cultural and environmental impacts as far back as 2012, urging them to follow federal law.
Pro-TMT legislators stride into the fray
This spring, pro-TMT legislators—led by House Speaker Scott Saiki—passed a House resolution creating a Mauna Kea Working Group, ostensibly to explore ways to reform decades of mismanagement by the State’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and the University of Hawaiʻi. But Hawaiians and environmentalists worry that the 15-member group appointed by Saiki—which includes only three Mauna Kea Kiaʻi—is a Trojan Horse, not only to continue state support for TMT but also to extend the state’s 65-year mountaintop Science Reserve lease, which expires in 2033. TMT officials view the lease extension as crucial to their project.
The 2021 legislature, again ignoring islanders’ pleas, also passed House bill 499 allowing the state to extend leases on state land by up to another 40 years. This sparked a July 4, 2021 protest at the Honolulu airport to raise consciousness about state land abuse in Hawaiʻi. Some Mauna Kea protectors participated.
Protest supporters’ First Amendment rights challenged
Meanwhile, litigation to quash a state subpoena seeking the financial records of the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance (KAHEA), a non-profit that supported the Kiaʻi roadblock, has wended its way through the courts. The subpoena, issued by Hawaiʻi Attorney General Clair Connors, sought to reveal the identities and contributions of KAHEA supporters. The state’s Supreme Court heard oral arguments in early 2021.
KAHEA’s attorneys characterized the Attorney General’s probe as a “fishing expedition” or “witch hunt” infringing on the First Amendment rights of KAHEA and its members (which includes this author). “They’re going after anyone who’s in any way associated with or affiliated with peaceful protest up on Mauna Kea,” said the group’s attorney Richard Naiwieha Wurdeman.
In September the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the subpoena, but substantially limited its scope: “We agree with the State AG that its investigatory powers validated the Subpoena,” they said in their unanimous decision, “But we conclude that two Subpoena requests seeking information about monies going into rather than coming out of KAHEA’s bank accounts are unreasonable.” The justices also commended the lower Circuit Court for blocking nine of the Attorney General’s 18 subpoena requests and said that two additional requests were also “unreasonable.”
Both sides declared the decision a victory. KAHEA praised the court because it “whittled down” the subpoena, striking it “in half,” and added that, “While declining to quash the entire subpoena as a violation of KAHEA’s constitutional rights, the Court affirmed, ‘KAHEA’s opposition to development on Mauna Kea falls squarely within the heartland of the First Amendment’s protections.’”
Are two TMT financial partners wavering?
Mauna Kea protectors have long urged TMT’s international partners to move their project to a different location. In 2020 Kealoha Pisciotta of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou and other Kiaʻi met with the University of California Board of Regents, and some regents openly expressed newfound concerns about the Mauna Kea site (brief video excerpts from their July 30, 2020 meeting can be viewed here.) UC, one of the original TMT partners and a major donor, has long been under pressure, including from their student bodies, to divest from the project.
Canada is also an early TMT partner, having committed $243 million, including manufacture of its dome. But in May 2021, the Canadian Astronomical Society, responding to the concerns of Native Hawaiians and Canada’s First Nations people, adopted a position at its annual meeting that it cannot support TMT unless it has the genuine consent of Native Hawaiians.
They cited the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Canada is a signatory, and which requires the “free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities for projects on their traditional territories.” The Society’s position also raises the bar on the next Mauna Kea telescope, the Mauna Kea Spectrographic Explorer, a 10-meter giant planned to replace the existing 44-inch Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope on the summit’s uppermost ridge. A discussion of all this is available here.