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The issue of building a giant telescope on Hawaii’s tallest mountain has torn the state apart in a way rarely seen in the islands.
Most state lawmakers have been conspicuously absent so far from the debate about the future of the Thirty Meter Telescope and how to respond to the protesters on Mauna Kea who remain adamant in their opposition to building another telescope on a mountain they consider sacred.
But the Legislature, under a recently released plan by Big Island Mayor Harry Kim to find a “way forward” on Mauna Kea, would play a central role in deciding how to manage the mountain and how best to fund the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
With the impasse at Mauna Kea soon to enter its third month, and with the 2020 Legislature convening in January, Civil Beat reached out to all 76 state legislators to see where they stand on the telescope.
Twenty-two legislators said they want the TMT built. Just two said they oppose the project.
Six talked to Civil Beat but declined to answer our questions: Do you support or oppose the TMT? And what should the state do about the impasse?
A seventh legislator acknowledged a text inquiry but did not comment when asked about TMT. His assistant later said he was traveling and could not speak with us before our Friday noon deadline.
Seven lawmakers declined to give a simple yes-no response, instead raising major concerns about the TMT process. And two legislators said they support the TMT but agree that the protesters have brought up legitimate grievances — call it “Yes, with reservations.”
“I would like to see the telescope built, but I also think the protectors have raised a number of very real legitimate concerns about management of the mountain over the years,” said Sen. Stanley Chang.
“And I think it is very reasonable that they would want some accountability for those issues, and to address some of them in a positive way, a thoughtful way, that takes care of all of the stakeholders before getting into that conversation about a new telescope.”
But many senators and representatives — 33 in all — did not respond to Civil Beat’s phone calls, texts and emails. (A list of where each lawmaker stands on Mauna Kea is included at the end of the story.)
Many of the legislators that we talked with are as divided by TMT as the people they represent.
Some don’t want to share their views, at least not in public. And those that do are aware of possible repercussions.
“Yes, I do support TMT, and if you can get me in the witness protection plan now, I’d appreciate it,” said Sen. Karl Rhoads.
He was joking, but his comment pointed to the worries some lawmakers expressed about harassment and retaliation, including from voters.
Others worry about what might happen to Hawaii’s reputation should the telescope not be built.
“I think there would be long lasting negative effects if we back out now,” said Sen. Breene Harimoto, who backs TMT.
But like many lawmakers, the senator has doubts that construction will ever resume.
“I really hope and pray that there can be an agreeable solution, but at this point I fear from all the media reports that when one side has its feet dug in and not willing to compromise, I am not sure how we can reach an agreement,” Harimoto said.
Other lawmakers are hopeful that a compromise can be reached if the two sides can soften their stances enough to begin talks.
Sen. Gil Riviere hasn’t picked a side, but criticized the 65-year master lease the University of Hawaii has for the summit that’s set to expire in 2033, just four years after the telescope is projected to be up and running.
“If lease renewal is a foregone conclusion, would that not be the ultimate in arrogance?” he asked.
Rep. Amy Perusso said she wants TMT to move elsewhere.
“When I served on the Education Committee I read the reports the auditor had done with respect to UH management on Mauna Kea. They were pretty devastating,” she said.
“This is a battle for the soul of Hawaii.” — Rep. Dale Kobayashi
“I think that any opportunity the university had, that the state had to fix this — they chose not to use it. They have not remedied the situation,” she added, “Given that context, I think it would be foolhardy for anyone in a position of power to think we should construct the telescopes up there.”
Perusso said moving forward on the project would demonstrate a “tone deafness with what many in the community are saying.”
Rep. Dale Kobayashi shares that view.
“This is a battle for the soul of Hawaii, and I oppose the TMT,” he said, likening the battle of Mauna Kea to the successful efforts to stop the military bombing of Kahoolawe. “I am not a scientist or an astronomer. I am a businessman. But having grown up here, I just support other local groups and what is important to them.”
At the core of the Mauna Kea deadlock is the recognition by many that there are historic and ongoing injustices to Native Hawaiians.
Kim’s plan makes multiple references to the host culture, including that the Hawaii Constitution “recognizes customary and traditional rights of Native Hawaiians.” How to address those concerns is of great debate, including whether it could lead to the creation of a separate governing entity for Hawaiians.
When asked about their views on TMT, several lawmakers referred Civil Beat to their previous comments on TMT.
Big Island Sen. Kai Kahele, author of unsuccessful legislation in 2018 that sought a major overhaul of Mauna Kea management, advised viewing a short video he made the day after Kim released his plans.
In the Big Island Video News clip Kahele said he remains focused on changing the management structure. He described the mayor’s plan as aspirational but lacking in details.
Like Kahele, Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English would not say whether he supports or opposes TMT. He represents Lanai, Molokai, Kahoolawe and parts of Maui.
A search turned up a newsletter from English dated Aug. 1 in which, as part of the Senate Hawaiian Caucus, the senator restated that the caucus stands with the “people engaged in a peaceful demonstration” in Mauna Kea and throughout the state.
The statement also called for Ige to rescind his emergency proclamation over the standoff, something the governor did July 30.
Kim’s plan also reiterated past promises from UH and others that five telescopes must be decommissioned by the time TMT goes up. That’s also a condition for several lawmakers.
While several audits have documented past mismanagement on the mountain, Sen. Mike Gabbard said that’s something to learn from.
“I understand the deep frustration Native Hawaiians feel of decisions made in the past on Mauna Kea. That doesn’t mean the state and astronomy community can’t learn from those mistakes and move forward in a fair way on the mountain,” he said.
Others, like Rep. Romy Cachola, look forward to rent from TMT because a portion of it could go to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as part of their share of ceded land revenue. TMT is expected to make lease payments of over $1 million once it’s operating.
Big Island Sen. Lorraine Inouye strongly supports TMT — and is among the most outspoken lawmakers in her criticism of protestors.
In a Sept. 4 email to legislators on the federal, state and county levels, Inouye described the actions of the protestors as “destructive” and “lawless.”
“It’s so disappointing that some of you are disregarding your sworn oaths of office, that some condone ‘civil disobedience!’” Sen. Inouye wrote, according to Big Island Now. “I’m also disappointed that (the) governor hasn’t used his court-sanctioned authority to resolve this, more so now that there’s clear legal ownership of the road to the top of Maunakea.”
Inouye also pointed out that the Legislature had appropriated $10 million in state general funds to manage the situation on Mauna Kea.
“And what if protesters show up in your community blocking a road because they don’t think they like a certain business or activity?” she wrote. “What’s to say they won’t decide to block an airport, harbor or other economic lifeline in your community?”
On Sept. 5, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported that Inouye urged Ige to take action to end the blockade, her second letter to state officials in as many weeks.
Inouye’s concern over what kind of precedent the protest might set is something that is on the mind of Sen. Clarence Nishihara. The protesters argue that Mauna Kea is a sacred site, he notes, but who makes such a determination?
“So they pick and choose what to call desecration,” said Nishihara, a TMT backer. “Sherwoods now. What’s next? They want to pick and choose.”
Nishihara was referring to the disruption by protesters last week to halt construction of a city multi-purpose sports complex in Waimanalo. As on Mauna Kea, many of the protesters at the beach park known as Sherwood Forest are Hawaiians.
“I have to uphold the state constitution, the federal constitution and the laws of the state.” — Rep. Calvin Say
Another argument shared by many TMT supporters in the Legislature is that the telescope’s petitioners properly went through the legal process and legally earned the right to build.
“As a state representative sworn in, I have to uphold the state constitution, the federal constitution and the laws of the state,” said Rep. Calvin Say, a speaker emeritus. “And for the last 10 years the TMT organization has done that and addressed all concerns. I truly believe that our forefathers, the navigators of the Hokulea, they used the stars and the universe as a guide, and the TMT will be another (type of) equipment for that use. And in researching the universe I truly believe it will benefit our kids.”
Kim’s plan includes no timetable for resolution, something that frustrates Sen. Glenn Wakai, who calls himself “very much pro-TMT.” He wonders what will break the logjam.
“For us to just throw out hands up in the air and cross our fingers and hope something miraculous will happen, that’s not leadership,” he said. “You have to drive toward some resolution. You can’t sit around the poker table staring at each other and the game never ends, you need an amicable resolution to this impasse. It cannot be in limbo forever.”
Whatever the solution, many lawmakers agree that it must directly involve the Native Hawaiian community.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said last week that legislators will be open to Kim’s proposals, especially regarding modernization of Mauna Kea management. Reached last week, Saiki, who supports TMT, proposed a new avenue for discussion.
“What needs to be done is the leaders of the four alii trusts and the broader Hawaiian community should get together and discuss the creation of a new entity that is akin to a fifth alii trust,” he said.
The alii (chief) trusts Saiki refers to are Kamehameha Schools, which focuses on education; the Queen Liliuokalani Trust for children, the Lunalilo Trust for the elderly and the Queen Emma Trust for medical care.
“The Hawaiian community has to create this organization. It would be credible and have resources so that it could research how to incorporate cultural practices into public and private policies, and to consider developing the capacity to manage natural resources such as Mauna Kea,” Saiki said.
He added, “It’s obvious that the state government cannot do this alone. It needs help.”
Sen. Laura Thielen proposed a commission similar to Kahele’s 2018 bill, and said equal importance should be placed on cultural, spiritual and environmental values of Mauna Kea.
“Economic impacts should not be a factor,” Thielen said.
She also said that no construction should begin before telescopes scheduled for decomissioning are removed.
The complexity surrounding Mauna Kea is a major reason why Big Island Rep. David Tarnas said he can not give a simple yes-or-no answer regarding TMT.
“I think the TMT would have substantial benefits for our community, economy and for science,” he said. “But this impasse is no longer just about one telescope. To gain support to move ahead with TMT, the state must earn the trust of those who oppose TMT and those protesting on the mountain by addressing long-standing issues and grievances facing Native Hawaiians in our state.”
To that end, Tarnas supports improving management of Mauna Kea and increasing funding for DHHL. But he also says the Office of Hawaiian Affairs needs to receive its full share of ceded land revenue — another touchy issue that would need the Legislature’s approval.
OHA, a quasi-government agency, has sued to take over management of Mauna Kea. It is also helping support the protesters.
And Tarnas said he is excited to think where the stalemate could lead. That includes serious discussion of a Native Hawaiian sovereign entity with its own resources.
“As a legislator, I don’t get to vote on TMT. But as a legislator, I am committed to addressing this issue that underlies much of the opposition that we are experiencing,” he said. “And I look forward to that. I feel a kuleana for the mauna. I represent the district, many of the kiaʻi are my constituents, and many who work on the mountain are my constituents, too.”
Rep. Jimmy Tokioka supports construction of the TMT.
“As a Native Hawaiian I understand why Native Hawaiians are protesting. I don’t believe that it’s only about the mauna. And I understand,” Tokioka said.
But, Tokioka said, he has to uphold the state constitution, and noted that the project went through all the necessary processes to get approval.
“So it’s very tough for me to say all of a sudden not do it. It’s what I believe,” he said. “And a lot of the people outside of the Legislature may be more on the passion of it than the policy.”
Here’s how state lawmakers responded to Civil Beat’s survey on TMT. We have included links to their Capitol websites which include contact information.
Support with reservations: Sen. Stanley Chang.
Oppose TMT: none on record.
Could not be reached: The office of Sen. Brian Taniguchi said he was traveling abroad and could not be reached for comment.
Support TMT: Reps. Della Au Belatti, Tom Brower, Rida Cabanilla, Romy Cachola, Bert Kobayashi, Bob McDermott, Val Okimoto, Richard Onishi, Scott Saiki, Calvin Say, Gregg Takayama, Cynthia Thielen and Jimmy Tokioka.
Support with reservations: Rep. John Mizuno.
Did not respond: Reps. Henry Aquino, Richard Creagan, Ty Cullen, Lynn DeCoite, Stacelynn Eli, Cedric Gates, Mark Hashem, Troy Hashimoto, Daniel Holt, Linda Ichiyama, Aaron Ling Johanson, Sam Kong, Sylvia Luke, Scot Matayoshi, Lauren Matsumoto, Angus McKelvey, Dee Morikawa, Mark Nakashima, Scott Nishimoto, Takashi Ohno, Sean Quinlan, Joy San Buenaventura, Roy Takumi, Chris Todd, Justin Woodson, Ryan Yamane and Kyle Yamashita.
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