When it comes to Mauna Kea, the governor, Legislature and Hawaii County are all looking at each other to figure out what to do to quell a months-long protest that has blocked construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Political leaders have taken little action as the protests on the mountain, which many Native Hawaiians consider sacred, sparked a movement throughout the islands. There have been similar protests over the development of renewable energy facilities and even a ballfield complex on Oahu. The military has said it is reconsidering the siting of a new missile defense system because of cultural controversy.

But no one seems to be making any progress on the $1.4 billion telescope, which hinges on resolving underlying issues like balancing Native Hawaiian cultural sensitivities with the project.

Legislative leaders say they’re waiting on Gov. David Ige and Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim to come forward with proposals. Ige says it’s not his responsibility but that he’s willing to help Kim if he asks.

Meanwhile, Kim has been waiting on all of them to act on a plan he’s already put together, which lawmakers have hinted is insufficient.

Hilo Bay with the majestic view of Mauna Kea with tiny dots on the summit, the observatories.
Gov. David Ige’s administration, Hawaii County and the Legislature are all kicking around how to move forward on Mauna Kea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“Soon, there must be a clear understanding of who’s going to do what,” Kim said Friday about the delays in implementing his plan.

The mayor said no one individual should be blamed for the lack of movement on Mauna Kea.

“This is what happens when you have a huge thing,” Kim said. “Unless someone takes charge, nothing gets done.”

Project officials have called for the state to show real leadership on the mountain but this has yet to happen.

In September, Kim drafted a proposal called “The Heart of Aloha: A Way Forward.” It had one specific policy proposal — that the governor, Legislature and University of Hawaii find a way to restructure the management regime of the mountain, which many Native Hawaiians consider sacred.

But when all 3,000-plus bills the Legislature will consider this year were counted two weeks ago, not one included a proposal to restructure management, though lawmakers have taken up the issue in the past.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said shortly after Ige’s State of the State speech on Jan. 21 that he had not received a request from the governor’s administration to look at restructuring management of the mountain. Likewise, Senate President Ron Kouchi was also waiting for direction from either Ige or Kim.

Governor David Ige speaks during joint House Senate press conference held at Capitol room 445.
While unified on issues like cost of living, affordable housing and education, Ige and legislative leaders haven’t come together on a plan to move forward on Mauna Kea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

There’s broad support for TMT in both the House and Senate.

In a meeting with Civil Beat’s editorial board last week, Ige said a 2017 lawsuit from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs stopped talks of restructuring Mauna Kea’s management, even though Kim’s plan in September includes a pledge from the governor that he would work with the Legislature to do so.

The University of Hawaii is the only stakeholder that seems to be making any progress on restructuring the management.

UH President David Lassner told the Board of Regents at a Jan. 16 meeting that UH lawyers are looking at other complex land regimes like the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, the state park system and even Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument as management models.

The regents asked to have a plan ready by April.

Lawmakers are also asking for more proposals from Kim on what exactly they should do on Mauna Kea.

“It’s premature for the Legislature to act if the Big Island mayor doesn’t address what the path forward is,” Rep. Sylvia Luke, the House Finance Committee chair, said in January.

Saiki agreed.

“It’s time for the governor to step up to the plate to provide some clear direction on this issue,” he said. “If it’s not clear if Mayor Harry Kim is able to do this on his own, then Mayor Kim should ask for help.”

Kim was surprised to hear that the legislators are waiting on him for proposals, but said he is also willing to start working with Ige to solve what’s happening on Mauna Kea.

“I’m not afraid of work,” Kim said.

Hawaii Mayor speaks during joint WAM FInance Meeting 2020.
Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, pictured in a budget hearing in January, says he still wants to work on proposals to try to resolve the standoff on Mauna Kea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Still, Kim said he has not had any communication with legislators regarding Mauna Kea.

“I felt it was not my place to go to communicate with them on what they’re doing,” Kim said. “But if we want to go anywhere we better include them.”

Kouchi, the Senate president, said in January that his chamber is not part of the process to come up with any proposals with Ige and UH.

A lack of communication has plagued the state in trying to address issues on Mauna Kea since protests began anew in July. There was miscommunication on whether several protesters who attached themselves to a cattle guard would be arrested. On a separate day, Hawaii County police blocked a road outside Hilo, inadvertently keeping a Department of Transportation official from reaching the summit.

Ige said he is encouraging the TMT International Observatory and the demonstrators, who call themselves kiai or protectors, to talk to each other directly.

Ige said project officials are still committed to building on the Big Island even as news came last month that the government of India, a partner in the consortium, is thinking about abandoning the venture on Mauna Kea.

Though the demonstrators have agreed to clear the road for now, they would likely be back in the middle of it if construction moves again. They have said they will not leave the mountain until TMT does.

Kim said he asked Ed Stone, executive director of the TMT International Observatory, to extend a moratorium on construction for a few more months. Project representatives have said they will not resume construction until the state can show that they can keep the road clear. 

Maunakea Access Road with parked cars and people gathered along Saddle Road.
Mauna Kea Access Road, pictured at center in July, has been cleared of tents since December. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Some in the state have called for complete removal of the protest camp, which has now moved to the sides of Mauna Kea Access Road to allow cars to go up to the summit.

The Hawaii County Board of Ethics plans to investigate why the county has not taken action to stamp out the protests, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported.

But enforcement has been a problem, for both the county and the state.

Kim said he can’t simply send officers in since that authority rests with the police chief and police commission.

Ige said that even if he summoned law enforcement officers from the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the state Sheriff Division, he might only get 50 or 60 officers.

“We are in a supportive role,” Ige said, adding that Hawaii has no state police force.

But Kim said that within the management structure of the mountain that includes DLNR, UH and other state departments, the county has virtually no role outside of certain roadways.

“There’s nothing mentioned about the county; we’re not in the picture,” Kim said.

He has never set a deadline on any of the pledges in his plan, which besides restructuring management includes support for housing on Hawaiian Home Lands. There are proposed reforms for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands being considered by the Legislature this year.

The only other two points moving forward in Kim’s plan include construction of a new UH facility at Hale Pohaku that can house cultural and educational programs. The state could fund up to $300,000 for the facility, while the educational programs would need $1.2 million for new positions.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author