Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea is on hold for at least a week as protests over the $1.4 billion project continue to mount.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige told reporters Tuesday that there will be a “timeout” to facilitate a dialogue.

“It’s a significant project and this will give us some time to engage in further conversations with the various stakeholders that have an interest in Mauna Kea and its sacredness and its importance in scientific research and discovery going forward,” he said.

Thirty Meter Telescope Mauna Kea top view

An artist’s depiction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea as seen from above.

Courtesy TMT International Observatory

The summit of the dormant Big Island volcano has become the site of protests — and 31 arrests last week — as Native Hawaiian and environmental groups fight to protect the location, already home to 13 telescopes. The 18-story-tall TMT would be the biggest yet and nine times more powerful.

“I am not quite sure our people have seen a movement like this in their lifetime and I think it’s a testament to the fact that our people have been ignited and are ready to move forward and resolidify ourselves throughout the world as a people and a country,” Kahoʻokahi Kanuha, one of the protesters who was arrested last Thursday, said in a news release Tuesday.

Peter Apo, a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, pointed at the history of telescopes atop Mauna Kea in a column Thursday for Civil Beat.

He explained that in 1968 the Department of Land and Natural Resources issued a 65-year lease to the University of Hawaii Institute of Astronomy for all conservation land above 9,200 feet to clear the way for the first telescope built that same year. The leases don’t expire until 2033, but UH is already asking the BLNR to approve new 65-year leases, subject to an environmental review.

“That first telescope in 1968 triggered a mini-assault on the mountain and there are now 13 telescope complexes operated by 11 countries generating revenues in the millions of dollars,” Apo said.

UH pays the state $1 a year for the land lease and then sub-leases to the observatories for the same price. Apo said the observatories then sell telescope viewing time at an average rate of $1 per second.

When asked if the amount the state leases the land for is appropriate, Ige said those past decisions have to be honored.

“My active engagement is understanding and having dialogue with many of the stakeholders and organizations that care about Mauna Kea — from all perspectives,” he said.

Suzanne Case media

Suzanne Case, Gov. David Ige’s appointee to head the DLNR, answers questions from reporters Tuesday at the governor’s office.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The governor said there’s no explicit connection between his appointment Tuesday of Suzanne Case to head the DLNR and the TMT controversy.

“The decisions were two independent activities,” he said.

If confirmed by the Senate, Case would also serve as chair of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, which last month signed off on a notice to proceed with construction of the TMT project.

“It’s obviously a sensitive situation and it’s not appropriate for me to comment,” she said. “What’s most important is to establish a relationship of trust and respect and understanding and good dialogue on all sides.”

Sen. Laura Thielen, the former head of DLNR under Gov. Linda Lingle and current chair of the Senate Water and Land Committee, said Tuesday that questions will definitely come up that the state land board will have to address.

For starters, she said key information about how land should be managed on Mauna Kea seems to have been lost over the course of many different UH administrations despite a plan the board adopted many years ago.

“I’m hopeful the board will be able to go back to the university now and remind them of that comprehensive management plan,” Thielen said.

About the Author