MAUNA KEA, HAWAII — Native Hawaiian groups vowed to protect Hawaii’s tallest mountain from an attempt to resume construction of a giant telescope.
They said they will gather peacefully at the base of Mauna Kea. The road to the summit will be closed July 15 morning as trucks carrying construction equipment start to make their way to the peak.
Scientists hope the massive telescope they plan to build atop Mauna Kea, a world-renowned location for astronomy, will help them peer back to the time just after the Big Bang and answer fundamental questions about the universe.
But the site where they plan to build is considered sacred by some Native Hawaiians — a realm of gods and a place of worship and prayer.
State officials say anyone breaking the law will be arrested. Protesters have been arrested during previous construction attempts.
The project already has been delayed by years of legal battles and demonstrations, drawing attention from the likes of “Aquaman” actor Jason Momoa, who has Native Hawaiian ancestry and has voiced opposition to the telescope.
Scientists selected Mauna Kea in 2009 after a five-year, worldwide search for the ideal site.
Protests disrupted a groundbreaking and Hawaiian blessing ceremony at the site in 2014. After that, the demonstrations intensified.
Construction stopped in April 2015 after protesters were arrested for blocking the work. A second attempt to restart construction a few months later ended with more arrests and crews pulling back.
But Hawaii’s Supreme Court has ruled the construction is legal, permits are in place, and the state has given the company behind the telescope a green light to resume its efforts. The company is made up of a group of universities in California and Canada, with partners from China, India and Japan.
According to the University of Hawaii, ancient Hawaiians considered the location kapu, or forbidden. Only the highest-ranking chiefs and priests were allowed to make the long trek to Mauna Kea’s summit above the clouds.
Today, the university leases the land at the summit from the state for existing telescopes and observatories on the summit. A road built for telescope access decades ago is used by thousands of tourists and locals each year, including Native Hawaiians who go there to pray.
Supporters of the $1.4 billion giant telescope say the cutting-edge instrument will not only make important scientific discoveries but bring educational and economic opportunities to Hawaii.
The telescope’s primary mirror would measure 98 feet (30 metres) in diameter. It would be three times as wide as the world’s largest existing visible-light telescope, with nine times more area.
Gov. David Ige said unarmed National Guard units will be used to transport personnel and supplies and enforce some road closures, but they will not be used in a law enforcement capacity during planned protests.
In a news conference July 14, Ige said that he “respected the right of people to protest” at the telescope site as long as protesters behave lawfully.
“As construction begins, our number one priority is keeping everyone safe,” Ige said, adding that he wants to make sure construction workers and truck drivers have unimpeded access to the telescope site.