‘The Calling’: As TMT stalemate continues, those on both sides prepare for long fight

Updated: Dec. 20, 2019 at 5:56 AM HST
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MAUNA KEA, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - For five months, the Thirty Meter Telescope protesters who call themselves protectors have been camped out at the base of the summit, blocking heavy construction equipment from ascending to the planned site for the $1.4 billion project.

Now they’ve got a decision to make: Do they leave along with law enforcement, at least for now?

On Thursday, the governor announced he was pulling state law enforcement from the mountain because he’d been informed that TMT was putting construction plans on hold. TMT says it can’t move forward unless the state and county can provide safe access to the mountain for everyone.

[Read more: 5 months after standoff with TMT protesters began, Ige pulls law enforcement from Mauna Kea]

In recent weeks, even as temperatures have dropped, the protesters’ resolve has remained strong.

And they’ve continued to say that they won’t rest until the TMT project for Mauna Kea is canceled.

In the eyes of government, the protest camp that went up at the base of Mauna Kea is operating outside the law. But for those who at Puuhonua o Puuhuluhulu, the protest is about so much more than a telescope. They camp, day after day, because ― they say ― they have a calling to protect the aina.

The mood at the protest camp is a lot different than it was in mid-July.

Shortly after the blockade started, 38 mostly Hawaiian elders were arrested amid a massive police presence. The crowd of protesters, meanwhile, swelled to more than 1,000.

But since those arrests, no more have been made. The only other significant action taken: The state removed an illegal wooden structure built near the protest camp.

On a recent weekday, renowned Hawaiian cultural practitioners are leading the roughly 50 people gathered for noon protocol.

It’s a far cry from the summertime masses, but the the camp still attracts high-profile visitors like Hilo’s Kolten Wong of the St. Louis Cardinals and his brother, Kean, of the San Francisco Giants.

“I talked to my brother when it all went down, we were just so torn,” Kolten Wong said.

[CONTINUING COVERAGE: Conflict on Mauna Kea]

“We wanted to come back. Obviously, we had our obligations, but we knew as soon as the season was done we were going to come and be up here for this.”

Other visitors come from around the islands or the mainland, taking a guided tour of the area and the trail overlooking the encampment.

The tour group on a day HNN visited included two people from California and a couple from Liliha ― former Honolulu police officer Walter Nihipali and his wife, Bobbi.

“It was a calling to come feel this everything over here ... and it gets emotional at times,” Nihipali said. “The people are fighting for what we lost before. We are trying to gain it back.”

The tour’s guide is Kaneohe resident Cheyenne Turalde ― one of the kiai, or protectors ― who came to Mauna Kea in July after watching his brother get arrested in his wheelchair.

“When I see him arrested on the TV, I went ‘wow,’” he said. “I dedicated myself to come here to help stop TMT.”

Noe Noe Wong-Wilson is one of the kupuna leaders at the camp. She said she’s hunkering down for winter and preparing for a long, drawn out fight.

“It’s getting colder in the evenings particularly but I think we are prepared,” she said.

Wong-Wilson was one of 38 arrested for blocking the road back in mid-July. She said she’s hopeful the protesters’ peaceful stance “makes it difficult for law enforcement to come at us in any way.”

She added: “We’re steadfast that we’re not going to leave this road. We’re here to make a strong statement as we have that no vehicles carrying TMT equipment will go up this main road.”

Activist Sparky Rodrigues said many are pulled to come and support those on the mountain.

“There’s a kuleana that goes with going up and not knowing why,” Rodrigues said. “We are standing for the aina and this is a representation of all the things that are going wrong with Hawaii.”

Over their five months on the mountain, the protesters have set up a well-run community, chock full of supplies for just about any eventuality.

In Hale Hoolako, the supply house, there are jackets, heat lamps, sleeping bags, batteries. It’s all been donated.

Nearby is the Mauna Medic Healer’s Hui.

“We have been out here for more than 100 days,” said activist Kahea Alapai. “I came up here July 12 and we’ve been up here for a long time.”

Alapai says the medics’ job is to protect the protectors with their emotional and physical needs.

“We just hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” Alapai said. “Winter is coming so prepping the kupuna for it.”

On hand in the medics’ makeshift store is everything from sunscreen to over-the-counter health aids to traditional medicines.

There are decontamination supplies, too, like milk of magnesia in case pepper spray is used.

The attorney general has called it a dangerous narrative that law enforcement would intentionally hurt people, and said officers on the mountain have no plans to use “excessive tactics.”

“That is not what they want to do and a narrative that paints law enforcement as gung ho and ready to do that is a very dangerous,” state Attorney General Clare Connors said.

But the Mauna Medics point to emotional trauma, too.

“During that first month, it was a lot of fire drills, false alarm, we’ve been on edge, PTSD, and being in that state for so long takes a toll on the lahui so that’s what activist burn out is,” Alapai said.

There’s uncertainty about how all this could end, but Alapai says there is hope and a sense of calm at the camp.

Supporters of the Thirty Meter Telescope say they have their own calling ― to defend the Thirty Meter Telescope and speak for those who are too afraid to come forward.

Former OHA trustee Peter Apo said many in the community support TMT but won’t say it publicly.

“They don’t want to get blown out on Facebook,” he said. “I did a series of pro-TMT columns challenging the culture injury status (and) I gotta tell you, wow. Talk about hate mail and death threats.”

“It was really eye-opening.”

Apo believes ancient Hawaiians who navigated by stars would have welcomed TMT.

Big Island Mayor Harry Kim said he’s also in a tough spot.

“When you are in this kind of a lousy job, the position of decision making, your responsibility is to see the whole picture,” he said.

As Civil Defense chief for more than 20 years, Kim was the voice of calm during volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and floods.

He’s sought to bring that same style of leadership to the TMT standoff, despite some bumps in the road. After an announcement from Ige over the summer that Kim would have authority over the state and county’s response to the conflict, Kim said he had no control over state operations and Big Island police. Despite ongoing confusion about who’s in control, Kim says he’s trying to broker peace.

And he said that’s been his calling for decades.

“I wish we would all settle down and not let our anger control ourselves,” he said.

Critics have called the octogenarian mayor paternalistic, and have said he’s not listening to them. But he insists he wants a peaceful resolution.

During a 40-minute interview, the mayor explained his views at length and talked about others who’ve been silent in the controversy.

He repeatedly pointed to his plan for the mountain, which he says underwent more than 115 revisions before it was released over the summer. He insists the words in the plan are not his own, but the product of multiple views ― including those who oppose him and the telescope.

“The heart of the mountain to me is symbolic of the beauty of the people of Hawaii. The Hawaiian people,” he said. “The vast vast majority look at Mauna Kea as a majestic mountain of beauty. And to know that when you do go on that mountain, you treat it with respect.”

But the question he did not answer is the one everyone wants:

What will ultimately happen at Mauna Kea?

When asked if he’s supportive of arrests to uphold the law, he said, “I guess that’s a word you can use. I’m obligated to follow that. The question is not whether I like it or not. There’s many law I don’t like.”

After past rumors of an overnight raid, Kim promised to let the public know if and when TMT plans to once again move its equipment for grading at the summit site, but he refused to give specifics.

He’s says he’s committed to gaining people’s trust, but Kim has also acknowledged TMT’s future in Hawaii is now uncertain.

Kim says he’s had meetings with the governments of countries funding the Thirty Meter Telescope, including Canada, China, Japan and India.

“They would like to see it here but obviously it bothers them what’s going on because they are being blamed,” he said. “They should not. I don’t care what your position is they are not responsible for this.”

He added that the TMT planners “did everything right.”

“They have absolutely nothing to do with the controversy today,” he said. “Anyone who spends 10 minutes reading on what they did in regards to seeing what is the most ideal place for this huge telescope. That is supposedly the best is the state of the art. maybe even decades to come.”

As the stalemate drags on, people on all sides do say they’re talking.

“I do speak with the mayor on a regular basis. We are looking at exploring different ideas that people have trying to find a safe and peaceful resolution,” the governor said recently.

Wong-Wilson, the activist, said those at the camp have been “talking all along."

“Even though it may not be visible to everyone or a public discussion ... there have been many discussions many attempts to come together,” she said.

While there appears to be dialogue between the protesters and government, what that means is still unclear. And that’s left the business community on the Big Island feeling uncertain about the economy.

Rhea Lee Moku, president of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, described the climate among businesses as “somber.”

“We certainly understand the position of the people who are protesting,” she said. "We also in the business community and support astronomy."

The chamber said someone in the astronomy industry recently pulled out of escrow because of concerns about the future of astronomy in Hawaii.

“We are concerned enough to say, ‘Hey, is this a sign that there will be more impact to the real estate industry’ for instance and what other industries will be affected?”

Mauna Kea Obervatories is also concerned about the future of their industry ― with 500 employees and 500 related jobs.

As part of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents’ newly-approved stewardship resolution, five telescopes will be removed from Mauna Kea by 2026.

“This decouples the closure of additional working facilities from the arrival of TMT, with TMT so uncertain we could end up in the place where we lose 5 additional facilities,” said Jessica Dempsey, of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. “This takes away educational opportunities, it takes away jobs on the island and these are things we are deeply committed to on the island.”

According to a 2014 University of Hawaii study, the astronomy industry had a total impact of $168 million statewide in 2012 with nearly 1,400 jobs.

While the other telescopes essentially pay nothing in lease rent, TMT would pay $1 million per year when it’s up and running.

But those against TMT say the state is overstating its positive economy impact on the islands. And they say their commitment to staying put is bigger than a telescope or an industry, it’s a calling.

“There just will not be TMT built on the mauna," Wong-Wilson said. "There’s absolutely no way that we will allow in this lifetime for that mauna to be desecrated any further."

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