Divided Over TMT: We Take a Look at Where Things Stand and How We Got Here

With tensions running high and a weeks-long standoff now stretching into its third month, no one seems to be able to predict what will happen next on Maunakea. Will the state or the protectors back down? Or will the Thirty Meter Telescope bow out? We take a look at where things stand and how we got here.
maunakea and TMT


A drive through the California Institute of Technology’s campus gives no indication of the turmoil that’s rocking Hawai‘i. Far removed from the controversy, the Pasadena streets are instead quiet and calm. It’s a sharp contrast to the cold temperatures and thousands of people rallying together at the Pu‘uhuluhulu protest camp on the Island of Hawai‘i in opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope.


At Caltech, I’m meeting TMT International Observatory’s vice president of external affairs, Gordon Squires, while TMT’s headquarters, also in Pasadena, are undergoing renovations. Caltech, along with the University of California and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, are the founders of the TMT Corporation, a nonprofit corporation with partners from Japan, China and India.


After site tests at various spots around the world, Maunakea, located above 40 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere, was chosen by TMT in 2009 as an optimal location for its telescope. That began the process to secure permits and approvals from the University of Hawai‘i and the State of Hawai‘i.


SEE ALSO: The Sacred History of Maunakea


To date, TMT has done everything legally asked of them by the state, though it has been challenged by Native Hawaiians every step of the way. It received approval by then Gov. Linda Lingle for its Environmental Impact Statement in 2010, and received approval for a Conservation District Use Permit in 2017. TMT was cleared to begin construction this July, only to be immediately halted by Native Hawaiian protesters, who prefer the term “protectors.” Anti-TMT demonstrations have also been happening on the streets of Honolulu, Waikīkī, Wailuku and Līhu‘e, among others, and around parts of the continental U.S.


Tasked with negotiations by Gov. David Ige, Hawai‘i Island Mayor Harry Kim has taken responsiblity for attempting to move the TMT project forward. But, with the protectors not wanting anything less than TMT’s departure, a compromise, or peaceful resolution, is highly unlikely, unless the state, TMT or the protectors change their current position.


Editor’s Note: OHA declined an interview for this story and Gov. Ige wasn’t available for comment at the time requested.

  TMT and Mauna Kea protests in Hawaii

Cultural practitioners from ʻĪlioʻulaokalani Coalition, including six hālau hula, and people from across Oʻahu gathered at ‘Iolani Palace.


TMT’s Dilemma

Dressed casually in an aloha shirt and jeans, Squires is an astrophysicist with a friendly demeanor, and has been working for TMT since 2011. He’s well aware of what’s happening and how sensitive this issue is, but believes that moving to the Canary Islands, where TMT has been pursuing an alternate site, won’t solve the deeper issues that Native Hawaiians face. He says the protests may end, but the root of these problems will still be there, such as issues of sovereignty, self-determination and past injustices. Meanwhile, if TMT chooses to leave, future students will lose potential scholarships that go toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education.


“[The existing telescopes] have much more culturally sensitive locations than where TMT is proposed to be put, so I think the history of astronomy on Maunakea and maybe how those telescopes were constructed has contributed to some of the feelings that exist today, because TMT is doing something very different than what was done before,” Squires says.


“So for me, I’m looking at TMT a lot differently than other people. I'm looking at the future of the students of Hawai‘i Island.” — Sandra Dawson, the TMT manager of Hawai‘i Community Affairs


“There is a growing awareness of historical gross mistreatment of indigenous people. And you know, I think it’s been attempted to be addressed in Hawai‘i from time to time, but it really hasn’t had a deep solution or a deep healing at all,” says Squires. “I like to believe that some good is coming out of this, I’d like to think that, well, maybe this was the catalyst that was needed in order for, you know, some of these deeper issues to be addressed.”


Beginning in 2014, TMT has pledged to pay a lease, starting at $300,000 per year that incrementally increases until the telescope is in operation—at that point, the payment is $1 million a year for as long as it’s being used. Of this payment, 80% is distributed to the Office of Mauna Kea Management for the stewardship of the mountain and the remaining 20% goes to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. In addition, since 2014, TMT has donated $1 million a year through its THINK (The Hawai‘i Island New Knowledge) Fund: $750,000 to the Hawai‘i Community Foundation and $250,000 to Pauahi Foundation. These contributions are used for scholarships and distributed to students and educators solely by those nonprofits. A lot of times, recipients may not even know there’s any connection to TMT.

  TMT and Mauna Kea protests in Hawaii


“When Tulsi Gabbard said we were cold-hearted corporate people, that hurt me so very deeply because that’s not what we are, that’s not who we are,” Sandra Dawson, the TMT manager of Hawai‘i Community Affairs, told me on the phone earlier. Her voice cracks, it sounds as if she’s holding back tears. “I know these kids and I care about these kids.” Dawson has worked with TMT since 2006, and lived in Hawai‘i for seven of those years, helping to get these educational initiatives off the ground. “So for me, I’m looking at TMT a lot differently than other people. I'm looking at the future of the students of Hawai‘i Island.”


Squires says that while there are a large group of Native Hawaiians protesting against TMT that there are other pro-TMT people, including some Native Hawaiians, who send emails asking the project to stay. TMT is now following the lead of Mayor Kim and the State of Hawai‘i, not wanting to overstep their process. “We’ve always attempted to be respectful and followed the process that was laid out for us, so we’re respecting that,” says Squires.


“I’m not anti-science, but I am anti-desecration, construction and destruction, and overdevelopment.” — Pua Case, a Native Hawaiian resident of Waimea, Hawai‘i Island 


The Opponents

Activists gather at Pu‘uhuluhulu to stand watch and guard the entrance of Mauna Kea Access Road from TMT construction crews. The number has ebbed and flowed from hundreds to thousands. The telescope may be what is uniting those some call protestors, some call protectors, but each has their own story about why they’re standing for Maunakea.


“I’m not anti-science, but I am anti-desecration, construction and destruction, and overdevelopment,” says Pua Case, a Native Hawaiian resident of Waimea, Hawai‘i Island who was raised on the slopes of the mountain. “The mo‘owahine of Lake Waiau told my younger daughter to ask me to stand and try one more time to stop the telescope. And I think that’s important, because that’s a way of communicating that is very ancient and was normal for our people at one time to listen to the ancestral spiritual realm give you direction. That’s what we pray for, that’s what we wait for, and when it comes, we then have to make a decision if we’re going to follow that guidance, that request.”


Having been a part of contested case hearings for the telescope in the past, her focus right now is on UH and the TMT partners who do not already have a presence on the mountain and may not understand what’s fully happening.


“I’m not for irresponsible science that would create a situation where a native people will lose more than a corporation could ever lose. And that is our mountain,” says Case. “There’s no 18 stories allowed on this island of any kind. Why would we allow for 18 stories to be in a fragile ecosystem, in a pristine landscape on the top of a sacred mountain, in a conservation zone, when 18 stories is not allowed anywhere on this island.”


SEE ALSO: [PHOTOS] Many Gather in Downtown Honolulu in Support of Maunakea


Approximately 1.8 million acres of ceded lands that belonged to the Hawaiian Monarchy were transferred to the United States, following the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. At statehood, the bulk of these ceded lands were given to the State of Hawai‘i, including where the Maunakea Astronomy Precinct squarely sits, and they’re to be held in trust “for the betterment of the conditions of Native Hawaiians,” according to the 1959 Admission Act.


 “That means that we are a rights-holder here, not a stakeholder,” says Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, which has opposed telescope construction on Maunakea since 2001. “What people aren’t acknowledging is that the Hawaiian people have been compromised for years, because they [the state, UH and TMT] do not have our clear and informed consent, which is a requirement of international law. The state has an affirmative duty to protect our interests here on our land and our resources and our rights,” says Kealoha. “If they were doing their job, we wouldn’t be in the situation.”


When the Hawai‘i State Supreme Court approved the conservation permit in 2018, there were eight criteria that had to be met in the Hawai‘i Administrative Rules 13-5-30. Pisciotta and Case believe that they weren’t, but the permit was still approved.

  Maunakea and TMT


“I’m just asking people before they have an opinion, before they have a stance, to look at the eight criteria … because if you’re standing against and you are watching as the police could possibly harm us or the National Guard or what have you, you are defending a construction permit that never met the eight criteria to build. Just because it became a law, doesn’t make it right,” says Case.


Pisciotta also says the protectors have been trying to get TMT board members, who are the decision makers, to come and meet with them at Pu‘uhuluhulu, but that hasn’t happened.


“I’m not against telescopes or anything like that, but when I’m looking at the two things, side by side, what Hawaiians have to lose if this telescope goes, it’s a lot more than the other people have to lose,” says Brittany Yap, a Native Hawaiian who moved to Northern California a few years ago. She’s been helping to organize anti-TMT events in the San Francisco Bay Area in tandem with Case and the leadership at Pu‘uhuluhulu.


Yap was part of the group who hand-delivered a petition with more than 156,000 signatures to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Palo Alto, which has been a major supporter of TMT, demanding that it halt and withdraw that money.


When asked about the money that TMT is giving to educational initiatives, Yap says it doesn’t matter how much money is on the line. “I think they just thought they could make that go away by throwing money at the local people, and promising them money. But they forget, in 1893, businessmen came in here and I mean we’ve been dealing with this since then. Foreigners come in here and try to throw money at us to make us shut up and let them do whatever they want to do and we’re done with that, we’re done with it.”


The protectors are committed to staying at Pu‘uhuluhulu for as long as it takes, and do not see any other outcome but for TMT to leave.


“I’m hoping that the TMT partners understand that the loss that they will experience is in no way comparable to the loss that we as the native people have already experienced and will certainly experience if the TMT is built on our mountain,” says Case. “And once they understand that, I’m hoping they will end their attempt to build here. We lose far more.”

  TMT and Mauna Kea protests in Hawaii


The Proponents

The University of Hawai‘i has a troubled history of managing cultural resources atop Maunakea. This is why OHA is currently suing UH, the state, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), as well as its board, and is asking the court to terminate UH’s general lease. In 1968, UH was awarded a master lease by DLNR to develop astronomy on the mountain, establishing the Maunakea Science Reserve. A critical 1998 audit by the State of Hawai‘i reported on UH’s mismanagement of Maunakea, stating “the university neglected historic preservation, and the cultural value of Mauna Kea was largely unrecognized.” It also states that DLNR “needs to improve its protection of Mauna Kea’s natural resources.”


That has been impossible for some opponents to look past, even though subsequent audits have documented positive changes by UH.


As a result of the 1998 audit, the Office of Mauna Kea Management was developed, a ranger program was put in place, and three advisory groups were created, including the Maunakea Management Board, the cultural advisory group Kahu Kū Mauna, and an environmental committee. While these boards are able to advise whether a project complies with the policies and plans that the university has adopted, ultimately, decisions are made by the UH Board of Regents, composed of 12 volunteers appointed by the governor.


Squires and Dawson both agree that if there hadn’t been so many problems in the past then things would not be where they are at today.


“It’s challenging because you have a process that TMT went through that now provides them the legal right to proceed, but there are legitimate underlying issues that the Native Hawaiian community and the lāhui are legitimately and rightly frustrated about,” says Greg Chun, the executive director of Maunakea stewardship at UH. A Kamehameha Schools graduate and Hawai‘i Island resident, Chun is also senior adviser to UH President David Lassner on Maunakea, and serves on the Maunakea Management Board. “I tell people all the time that one of the things that makes this particular conflict challenging is that everybody’s right, no matter what side of the issue you stand on, you’re right. It proves to be really difficult to try to find a path forward in those situations,” Chun says.


The Office of Mauna Kea Management is currently working on a new Mauna Kea Master Plan, which, Chun says, addresses some of the issues that some of the opposition has raised. “The master plan sets in motion what development on the mountain would look like, which right now, there are no new telescopes being planned. TMT was to be the last one,” says Chun. “We’re still in the formative stages, but those would be other opportunities for people to weigh in and participate.”

  mauna kea


On July 26, Mayor Kim called on leaders from the Hawaiian community to join him in a discussion of a resolution. At the table were five members from OHA including its interim CEO, Sylvia Hussey; Kamehameha Schools’ CEO Livingston Wong, trustee Crystal Rose, and former trustee Corbett Kalama; Department of Hawaiian Homelands’ interim chairman William Ailā; UH’s senior advisor Greg Chun and professor of Hawaiian language Larry Kimura; Royal Order of Kamehameha members Alika Desha and Charles Heaukulani; Office of Mauna Kea Management’s Kālepa Baybayan; Native Hawaiian Educational Council coordinator Ka‘iulani Pahi‘o; Kanaka Council’s Bobby Yamada; County of Hawai‘i’s deputy planning director Duane Kanuha; and Kohala Institute’s executive director Kalipi Noelani. After an emotional two-hour meeting, Kim says they all had an understanding of how complex the issue is, and that everyone unanimously agreed discussions should continue.


While the first meeting was an open discussion, Kim told me that the second meeting is “to discuss how we go forward with the Thirty Meter Telescope in a way that brings peace, respect and improvement on the situation of managed care.”


Not included in these meetings were representatives from TMT or the protectors at Maunakea, who are leading the worldwide movement against the telescope.


“I don’t think you will see that when they found out of this meeting, not one of them said how come we’re not invited,” says Kim, in regards to the protectors. “I think a lot of the leaders know that I had called them in months before and weeks before individually for the most part to come and talk.”


Kim says he’s been to the protest camp four times to observe and to listen, but not for an exchange. “What is there to exchange? I think they understand what my job is, who I am, and I make it always clear.” He also says during his visits that he’s “always been treated with the greatest of respect and courtesy.”


“The most negative thing about the situation is what it’s doing to the people of Hawai‘i, who I consider the most precious on God’s earth,” says Mayor Kim. “The mountain is supposed to bring us together, not split us apart. That’s the most important thing I’ve tried to work towards.”


Last month, Kim released his Maunakea plan entitled “The Heart of Aloha, A Way Forward.” The document addresses issues in regards to astronomy on Maunakea and recaps plans for new rules for Maunakea and benefits TMT is providing the community. Also included are written pledges by Kim, Gov. Ige, William Ailā, UH President David Lassner, TMT executive director Ed Stone, and the directors of the Maunakea Observatories. They offer commitments to working together and honoring culture, but no changes in stance.


Kim states this presentation is not a yes or no for the TMT project, but about “asking Hawai‘i’s people to come together and finding a path to go forward in a good way.” This may be a step forward, but it’s still a long way from a peaceful resolution, if that is at all possible.