HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Activists say hundreds are planning to protest Mauna Kea construction when it begins, and they say they’re ready to be arrested if that’s what it takes.
“I just don’t think anyone is going to budge and they are probably going to have to to use force,” said Healani Sonoda-Pale, of Ka Lahui Hawaii Political Action Committee.
The statements came after multiple law enforcement agencies headed up to Mauna Kea early Thursday morning to dismantle structures and shrines built by Native Hawaiian activists, clearing the way for construction crews. One protester was arrested on the mountain.
The state operation happened a day after the state issued the Thirty Meter Telescope project a “notice to proceed” with construction, a decade after the $2 billion telescope was first announced.
In a news conference, Gov. David Ige said construction of the project is set to begin “sometime this summer,” but no actual kick-off date has been released.
Ige said that’s because the start date is still being hammered out. “We will proceed in a way that respects the people and place and culture that make Hawaii unique," he said.
When asked whether he’s consulting with the National Guard given protesters’ plans to attempt to halt construction, Ige replied: “We are making plans to ensure that the health and safety of all in our community. We are committed to protecting the rights and the laws for everyone involved.”
Meanwhile, Big Island Mayor Harry Kim pledged to use county resources to keep protests peaceful.
“I would assume no different than any other time," he said. "This will be to keep the area safe of trespassers or demonstrators in their designated area and I understand that anywhere along Saddle Road is county jurisdiction.”
State Department of Land and Natural Resources officers arrived on Mauna Kea around 3 a.m. Thursday and split into groups, dismantling the structures. The road to the summit was also blocked.
Activist Kahookahi Kanuha was arrested during the operation and released Thursday afternoon.
He told Hawaii News Now that officers took him into custody because "I simply wanted to be able to record and document what they were gonna do and how they were gonna do."
Kanuha said he wanted to record "so that we can show the world exactly what the state of Hawaii thinks about Hawaiians and how they treat them, how they treat our culture, and how they treat our spiritual beliefs and practices, which is basically to treat it like a bulldozer and just ram through all of it.”
The structures dismantled Thursday included one that had been built across the street from the Mauna Kea Visitor’s Center in the early days of the protest encampment in 2015, following blockade arrests.
Activist Billy Freitas was at the scene Thursday and said 20 to 30 officers accompanied by state workers took the structure down and trucked it away.
“They posted a sign that says ‘notice of disposition of abandoned or seized property,'" he said. "It was never abandoned, we have personal things in there.”
Another group of officers removed a structure described as a “kanaka ranger station” known as Hale o Kuhio — along the Mauna Kea Access Road on Hawaiian Home Lands.
Demonstrators say that structure went up several months ago.
There were also two ahu, or shrines, at Mauna Kea’s summit that were dismantled. Activists said the shrines were built for religious purposes, and they consider the state’s actions desecration.
Attorney General Clare Connors said the shrines and structures were taken down “very carefully,” and will be stored for pick up.
She also told reporters Thursday that the state wants to protect everyone’s rights, including those of protesters and construction workers.
“There is a difference of course between lawful speech and unlawful conduct,” she said. “When construction proceeds, the individuals working on Mauna Kea are going to need safe access.”
In a statement, TMT International Observatory board of governors Chairman Henry Yang said he was pleased that the state had issued the “notice to proceed” and formulated a plan for ensuring construction workers can get to the summit.
“We remain committed to being good stewards of Mauna Kea, and to honoring and respecting the culture and traditions of Hawaii,” he said.
"It has been a long process to get to this point. We are deeply grateful to our many friends and community supporters for their advice and for their encouragement and support of the TMT project over the years.”
In October 2018, after years of legal wrangling, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the 18-story, Thirty Meter Telescope’s construction.
The ruling came nearly a decade after the project was first announced as part of a new class of very large telescopes designed to spy farther into space and millions of years back in time, to when the first stars and galaxies were formed in the universe.
But opposition to TMT was immediate — and remains strong, raising questions about whether future protests might block construction vehicles seeking access to the mountain.
That’s what happened in 2015, when many activists were arrested while blocking construction crews from what they considered a sacred Native Hawaiian space.
This story will be updated.