One month into the well-organized protest against building a large telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea, state officials have made no discernible progress in getting construction crews and heavy equipment to the summit.
In spite of the success of the kia’i, or guardians, in blocking the start of construction for the Thirty Meter Telescope, a new Civil Beat Poll shows a solid majority of Hawaii residents support the project.
By a more than 2-to-1 margin — 64% to 31% — of registered voters in Hawaii who were polled say they favor building the state-of-the-art telescope, most of them strongly in support. Only 3% say they are unsure while another 3% say the issue does not matter to them.
They also do not like how Gov. David Ige has handled the TMT issue.
Ige said in June that the state had issued a “notice to proceed” on the project, and last month said construction would begin July 15. When that didn’t happen, the governor issued an emergency proclamation for Mauna Kea that he later rescinded.
Only 21% of those surveyed have a positive opinion of the governor’s leadership on the issue compared to 53% who hold negative views.
That support crosses most political ideologies and party affiliation, as well as income and education levels. Majorities of Caucasians, Japanese, Filipinos and Chinese say they back the TMT, too.
The same goes for voters on Oahu, Maui and Kauai but also Hawaii island, where Mauna Kea is the highest mountain and already home to 12 other telescopes and an astronomy industry with international ties.
But Native Hawaiians, in contrast, were more likely to oppose the telescope — 48% of those surveyed said they are against building the TMT, compared to 44% who support it.
There is also a wide generational split in views. Registered voters identifying as 50 years of age or older overwhelming support the telescope, with 74% in favor of building the project. By contrast, 54% of those surveyed under the age of 50 oppose the TMT, with just 42% supporting it.
What does it all mean?
“There is overwhelming support for the project when you look at the state in full,” said Seth Rosenthal, research consultant for MRG Research, which conducted the poll for Civil Beat. “It’s interesting in part because it is one of the few issues that we have come across where there aren’t really any political divides.”
The Civil Beat Poll surveyed 1,367 registered voters statewide Aug. 1-3. The results were weighted to reflect a mix of 60% landlines and 40% cell phones. The overall margin of error is 2.7 percentage points.
The poll was conducted several days after the governor canceled an emergency proclamation to commence with TMT construction, which is pegged at $1.4 billion. At that same time — July 30 — the state Department of Land and Natural Resources approved an extension so the telescope work would not have to begin until September 2021.
Leaders of the protestors at the camp at the base of the Mauna Kea Access Road have indicated that they will continue their protest against construction for as long as necessary.
The survey was also completed before Monday’s announcement that the international consortium pushing for TMT to be built on Mauna Kea is also seeking a permit for an alternative site in the Canary Islands. However, the TMT officials say they intend to continue to pursue Mauna Kea as their top choice.
MRG Research, which has conducted surveys for Civil Beat since 2010 as Merriman River Group, said the Civil Beat Poll on the TMT and Ige generated an unusually high volume of interest. Several hundred people gave Civil Beat permission to follow up with a conversation about how they answered the poll questions.
“I strongly support the telescope — I think it’s a good idea to be able to see into the sky,” said Gary Heiligman of Kailua, who is 73.
Heiligman, who is part-Hawaiian, said he is sympathetic to the protesters on the mountain but also understands the need for scientific discovery.
“It’s funny, but nothing ever came up about it being sacred until they brought it up,” he said, referring to the protests. “So why now?”
But Heiligman said he has been shocked the news reports of kupuna being arrested on the mountain and generally feels the protestors have behaved well.
“I remember the protest of Kahoolawe, and some of the same people are protesting now,” he said, referring to the successful movement to stop the U.S. military from using the uninhabited island for bombing practice and as a training ground.
“Walter Ritte, those guys, I seen them on TV,” he said. “Wow!”
For William Akima, a Native Hawaiian living in Kamuela on the Big Island, what’s happening on Mauna Kea is personal. He has friends and family among those fighting the project, including his own daughter, Kala Akima-Akau.
“She’s been there from the beginning,” said Akima, 79.
He said that his daughter graduated from the halau of Bonnie Pua Case, one of the leaders of the movement. Akima said the protesters believe Mauna Kea is a sacred place, and he agrees.
“It’s like a temple,” he said. “From where we live in Kamuela, that is the only mountain we look up to.”
Civil Beat asked how voters felt about the protests against TMT. Half of them said they oppose those efforts, while 43% were in favor.
Those surveyed were also asked, “How important is the potential positive scientific impact of the Thirty Meter Telescope to your overall opinion of the project?”
A majority of 57% responded “very important.”
Asked about the potential negative impact of the TMT on Native Hawaiian cultural practices, 34% said that issue is “very important,” 29% said “somewhat important” and 27% said “not important.”
Sarah Guiao, a 20-year-old living in Ewa Beach, opposes the telescope project because the issue is “about Native Hawaiian rights and because it is sacred land to them.”
But Guiao, a Filipino American attending the University of Hawaii Manoa, is split “50-50” on whether the telescope should go to the Canary Islands. She worries about the possible negative impact to jobs and astronomy-related careers on the Big Island.
This is the first time that Civil Beat has conducted a poll on the TMT.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser ran a poll in March 2018 that showed about 77% of the respondents said they support it, “while 15% oppose it and 8% were undecided.”
In the Civil Beat Poll, disappointment of the governor’s leadership runs across demographic groups.
Heiligman, the TMT backer, voted for Ige and says that, over all, he approves of how he has done in office. But the arrests of 38 kupuna on Mauna Kea does not sit well with him, nor does the issuing of the emergency proclamation.
“Maybe he had his reasons, I don’t know,” said Heiligman.
Akima, who opposes TMT, said he also saw no reason for the proclamation.
“They were up there peacefully,” he said. “What was the emergency proclamation for? What they are doing is not anything wrong.”
Bryant Higa of Waikele, who wants the TMT built, is sympathetic to the protesters. He too thinks the arrests were wrong.
Higa, 29 and a graduate in astronomy from UH Manoa, offered a suggestion as to what Ige could do to help resolve the standoff on the mountain: use Hawaiian names for any discoveries coming from the telescope.
“If we ever make it off this planet to the stars, if TMT discovers planets that are habitable, we could give them Hawaiian names,” said Higa, who is of Chinese, Japanese and Okinawan ancestry. “The culture would be perpetuated. Those names would continue for the future of humanity.”
The governor declined to be interviewed for this story. In an emailed statement, he said he is encouraged by the level of the support for the projects and believes a compromise can be reached.
“The Native Hawaiian culture is the foundation for life in these islands. I believe that’s why you see people expressing support for the protest, even though they want to see the telescope built,” Ige said.
“As the leader of this state, I am willing to take the time to work with protest leaders and other community leaders to come to a reasonable resolution that ensures safety and respects the rule of law. We can achieve a better future for our state when we work together.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.