Gov. David Ige on Tuesday evening met with Thirty Meter Telescope opponents near the Maunakea Access Road shortly after announcing that Mayor Harry Kim would take over efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution with demonstrators who have blocked the road for nine days.
The governor was accompanied by Kim, William Aila, interim chairman of the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, and Lino Kamakau, Hawaii Island enforcement chief for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Ige — who arrived at Pu‘u Huluhulu, the site of the protesters’ camp, at about 5:30 p.m. — was welcomed with chants and hula, lei and was heralded by conch. He was greeted by kupuna, or elders, including Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele and Noe Noe Wong-Wilson and longtime Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte Jr.
The governor told those assembled at the camp he “learned a lot today” and thanked them “for welcoming me here.”
The governor, who proclaimed a state of emergency over the protests a week ago, kept his public remarks brief and made no promises.
“I wanted to thank Mayor Kim for his partnership,” said Ige. “We are committed to finding a way forward in a peaceful manner, and certainly looking forward to the dialogue and much conversation that will be required as we move forward.”
Kim said he told the governor, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” He added he would “do my best” to try to move the situation forward in a manner agreeable to all.
Ige announced earlier in the day that the Big Island mayor was taking the lead in negotiations with opponents of the $1.4 billion observatory project, which is to be built near the summit of Maunakea.
The announcement was received with guarded optimism by protest leader Kahookahi Kanuha.
“We’ll see how that goes, but at this point, I’m hopeful that it’s a step in the right direction,” Kanuha said.
Unlike Ige, Kim has visited with the protesters on multiple occasions, and understands the community better, Kanuha said. Because of this, Kanuha said he hopes Kim’s leadership will be more understanding of the protesters’ desires.
While Kanuha and other protest leaders have been openly contemptuous of Ige throughout the conflict, Kanuha said Ige’s language in the announcement might indicate the governor is more open to communication with TMT opponents.
For the first time, Kanuha said, Ige did not refer to TMT opponents as “protesters,” but as “protectors of Maunakea,” a style preferred by those who oppose development on Maunakea, which is considered sacred by some Hawaiians.
Kanuha said he holds out hope that the state and the protectors can work out an arrangement that will be beneficial to all parties — even TMT, “because it would benefit the TMT for them to go to the Canary Islands,” he added.
Early Tuesday, Kanuha said, a vehicle from Gemini Observatory attempted to ascend the access road. Kanuha said the vehicle was blocked from the road pending discussion with Gemini superiors for about 15 minutes, whereupon the vehicle drove away.
According to a statement from Maunakea Observatories, the vehicle — which the statement said was stopped for about 45 minutes — contained technicians who intended to repair an unstable cooling system at Gemini. The observatory relies on a gaseous helium cooling circuit to maintain sufficiently low temperatures for two highly delicate instruments, but that circuit has become unstable without regular maintenance.
“Despite prior public statements indicating observatory technicians would not be denied access to the telescopes, activists today contradicted their earlier position,” the statement read. “Activists told observatory personnel that without a formal, public letter from the observatories — supporting activists’ demands of the state — access for critical technical maintenance is no longer supported.”
Kanuha said he is willing to allow observatory technicians up the mountain to provide maintenance on the existing telescopes at the summit — provided that the state is willing to allow a single vehicle up the mountain each day for reasons of religious practice. So far, the state has not been willing to make that concession, Kanuha said.
The protesters have already made several concessions allowing vehicles to access the road, including supply trucks for Halepohaku, police and National Guard vehicles, Kanuha said.
“We’re not being unreasonable here,” Kanuha said. “We deserve more than one vehicle.”
“Maunakea is special and remains the preferred choice for TMT. We support finding a way forward that is safe and based on mutual respect,” said TMT spokesman Scott Ishikawa in a statement.
Beyond Ige’s announcement, little changed at the access road during the ninth consecutive day of occupation by protesters.
However, 56 Honolulu police officers, who had traveled to Hawaii Island last Tuesday, departed the island Monday and Tuesday, with a Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman saying the officers’ assignment had been to assist Hawaii officers in keeping the roadways clear for the movement of construction equipment.
Dan Dennison, spokesman for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said he could not confirm whether the Honolulu officers will be replaced, citing operational security.
Dennison said about 1,000 protesters were observed in attendance Tuesday morning. While no arrests have been made this week, Dennison said one 21-year-old man required medical assistance for altitude sickness on Tuesday. The man recovered and left the mountain on his own.