Public support for TMT drops sharply, according to a new Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll

  • A press conference addressing the spate of threatening social media posts directed toward government employees and officials was held at Governor David Ige’s office earlier this month. (Photo by CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL/Honolulu Star-ADVERTISER.COM)

MAUNAKEA — Public support for the Thirty Meter Telescope has declined sharply after more than two months of peaceful but determined protests on Maunakea, and most voters now oppose the idea of using force to reopen Maunakea Access Road to allow construction to move forward, according to a new Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll.

Half of all voters surveyed in the poll still support plans to build the $1.4 billion next-generation telescope near the summit of Hawaii’s tallest mountain, but that is a dramatic drop from 18 months ago when 77% of voters said they supported the project.

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The poll also found that slightly more than half of all voters approve of the protests, which are a well-organized effort to prevent the TMT from ever being built.

The state and anti-TMT protesters are deadlocked. Supporters of TMT say the project has a legal right to proceed with construction, but protesters who describe themselves as protectors of Maunakea are camped on the access road to prevent construction equipment from reaching the summit area.

The access road has been closed since July 15, and dozens of anti-TMT activists were arrested July 17 for blocking the roadway. The protesters regard the project as a desecration of a mountain that many Hawaiians consider sacred, and say they will not allow TMT to be built.

The Star-Advertiser poll found Hawaiians object most to the project, with 62% now saying they oppose construction of the TMT.

The Hawaii Poll, conducted Sept. 12-19 on cellphones and landlines by Mason-Dixon Polling &Strategy of Washington, D.C., included 800 registered voters statewide and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. It includes a percentage of a separate poll of 400 Hawaiian registered voters, weighted to reflect their percentage of Hawaii voters. The margin of error on the Hawaiian poll is plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Gov. David Ige said in an interview Tuesday that “the issue of building TMT is not a popularity contest. TMT has the potential to benefit the world by advancing scientific knowledge, and has met all its legal requirements.”

He noted the flurry of anti-TMT activity on social media in recent months, and acknowledged the poll shows support for the project dropped amid that cacophony.

“I do get the sense, and I think some of it is shown in the polls, is that people want both,” Ige said. “They would like and they support TMT, and they support the protesters, even though you and I know that that’s two different sides of the same coin.”

Ige has pledged to reopen the road and “enforce the law ” so that construction can proceed, but the new Star-Advertiser poll found 59% of Hawaii voters oppose the use of force to reopen the road. Among Ige’s fellow Democrats, fewer than a third say the state should use force to clear the road.

That is one reason Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim and Ige have been patient as they try to work through the issue to find a solution, Ige said.

“Use of force is the absolute last step that we would want to be looking at,” Ige said. “Whatever action that we take to physically move those who are breaking the law will be done in a respectful and nonviolent way.” That might mean law enforcement officers would pick up protesters and move them off the road, he said.

Andre Perez, one of the leaders of the protest movement, said in a written statement that the poll results show “that the more educated people become on this issue the more they support the protection of Maunakea and oppose the TMT.”

“The community support for the protectors’ stance, and opposition to the state using force to clear the road, clarifies that by any ethnic or cultural standard, arresting elders for protecting their sacred, ancestral land is just wrong, ” Perez said in the statement.

“Hawaiians have suffered generations of injustice and forced compromise. The Hawaiian community has drawn the line to say no more. The kupuna (elders ) and kia’i (protectors ) are united, firm and committed to their position,” Perez said. “It’s my feeling that the outcome of this issue will define Hawaii politics and community relations for generations. TMT should just leave Hawaii.”

Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said the poll results are remarkable because support for TMT has apparently collapsed since Honolulu Civil Beat polled voters on the same issue early last month.

“You’re talking about people changing their mind about an issue, which is an incredibly hard thing to achieve,” Moore said. “It’s not as if the TMT is a new idea that no one has ever heard before. I mean, people had years to form opinions on this, so it goes to show in some ways the brilliance of the protest campaign.”

The finding that most voters support the protest is also surprising because protest movements tend to be unpopular. That suggests that “they have a lot of respect for the way that the protest has been handled, ” Moore said.

“The kapu aloha (non ­violent protest ) approach seems to be very popular, and that again is a testament to the sophistication and organization of the protest movement, ” he said.

Gordon Squires, vice president for external relations for TMT, said the poll results “do not deter or discourage us because we strongly believe they reflect responses to a number of issues beyond TMT.”

“Those issues include the desire among some Native Hawaiians for self-determination, a belief that there has been mismanagement of Maunakea in the past, and community concerns about citizens acting unlawfully and where that might lead, ” Squires said in a written statement. “TMT, its supporters and its protesters have become caught in a perfect storm wherein TMT is an icon for those issues.”

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When the project’s sponsors first came to Hawaii more than a decade ago, “we were aware of the issues related to self-determination and land management. We heeded those concerns, and others that arose during numerous sessions with residents across Hawaii, ” Squires wrote.

“We listened carefully and responded with solutions. The resulting site selected, which is 600 feet below the summit; the physical design plan ; and the education and workforce programs all stand to benefit Hawaii and all residents, without negative impact, now and into the future,” he said in his statement.