Gov. Ige makes surprise visit to Mauna Kea, where TMT protesters remain for 10th day

Updated: Jul. 24, 2019 at 2:40 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A day after Gov. David Ige made a surprise visit to Mauna Kea, activists remained at the base of the mountain on Wednesday, committed to protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope project.

The governor received a remarkably warm welcome ― with lei, chants and embraces ― Tuesday in his first visit to the TMT protest.

In a short address to a crowd of hundreds, he pledged to find a “way forward in a peaceful manner.”

“Certainly, we look forward to a dialogue and much conversation will be required,” he said. “Thank you for welcoming me here.”

The visit came on the same day the governor announced that Big Island Mayor Harry Kim will be “taking the lead” in the effort to find a resolution to the Thirty Meter Telescope conflict.

Governor speaks at TMT protest site

#LIVE: Gov. David Ige speaks to reporters after announcing that Big Island Mayor Harry Kim will "take the lead" in efforts to find a resolution to the Thirty Meter Telescope conflict. MORE: #HINews #HNN

Posted by Hawaii News Now on Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The governor told Hawaii News Now he decided to put Kim at the head of the joint command overseeing the state’s response to the protest because of the mayor’s strong connections to the island.

“This was something that the mayor and I talked with at length," he said. "We thought that having Harry support me in this capacity would be the best way to talk about the challenges and find the best way forward.”

When HNN asked Ige whether the decision to put Kim at the head of the operation shows a failure of leadership on his part, the governor said “absolutely not.”

After addressing the media, Ige then slowly walked down a stretch of Mauna Kea Access Road lined with people who call themselves protectors of the mountain.

As he made his way to the tent for kupuna, where they sit in chairs lined across the road to block construction vehicles from passing, the crowd was almost completely silent and there were some tears as elders embraced the governor and offered him a ceremonial greeting.

Some of those who greeted Ige were the same kupuna arrested last week.

Protesters praised the governor’s visit ― which Ige described as impromptu ― and said it went a long way in bringing the community together.

But it remains unclear how the stalemate will be resolved.

“Ultimately, it’s either the TMT goes up or it doesn’t go up,” said Kahookahi Kanuha, one of the early leaders of the protest. “We don’t know what’s going to happen going forward.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, Thirty Meter Telescope spokesman Scott Ishikawa said Mauna Kea remains the preferred choice for the facility.

“We support finding a way forward that is safe and based on mutual respect,” the spokesman said.

The governor’s decision comes as the TMT protest grows, garnering vocal support in rallies locally and nationally, and the chances for an end to the conflict anytime soon grows dimmer by the day.

Up until Tuesday, Ige’s dealings with TMT opponents have been at arm’s length ― and largely fraught with tension.

Over the weekend, his suggestion that his emergency proclamation for Mauna Kea was still needed because of drug and alcohol use at the protest camp angered TMT opponents and prompted calls for an apology. Several lawmakers and others have also urged him to rescind the state of emergency.

Kanuha said he supports the governor’s decision’s to tap Kim as the lead for the TMT operation.

“He lives in this community, he knows this community so I’m hopeful that his leadership would be much more understanding,” Kanuha said.

Some onlookers will almost certainly see the decision to put Kim at the lead of the state’s efforts to tackle one of the biggest divides to face Hawaii in decades as ceding authority ― and responsibility ― to a county leader. But others might consider the move a smart one.

The state hasn’t been able to make any progress since the protest started, even after 38 arrests, but perhaps Kim ― who has an open line of communication with the protesters ― might be able to.

Over the weekend, Kim met with TMT protesters at the Mauna Kea camp and praised the gathering as “very, very orderly.”

“I think this is a gathering of people together for the first time, openly ― as hard as it is for some to believe ― that they really proud to be Hawaiian,” Kim said. “The organization and respect for their orders and authorities... (it’s) unbelievable unless you’re here.”

Kim was at the protest again Tuesday alongside the governor.

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Josh Green also met with protesters, sharing hugs and donating medical supplies.

After the visit, he indicated that if no shared agreement can be reached with the protesters then those seeking to build the $1.4 billion telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea may have to “move on.”

This story will be updated.

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