HAWAII

Protesters Bracing Themselves 'Mentally, Spiritually' For Battle Atop Hawaii Volcano

06/24/2015 02:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

HONOLULU (AP) -- A battle is poised to unfold on a sacred Hawaii mountain where plans call for construction of one of the world's largest telescopes.

Work is set to resume Wednesday on the Thirty Meter Telescope atop the Big Island's Mauna Kea, but protesters say it tramples on land sacred to many Native Hawaiians and they will try to stop the construction peacefully.

"We're bracing ourselves mentally, spiritually for the battle ahead," said Kahookahi Kanuha, one of the protesters camped out near the visitor center at 9,200 feet. "I don't mean a physical battle. It's brain against brain."

The protesters are sleeping in vehicles or on cots under a tent and braving weather that's chilly for Hawaii standards - about 30 degrees at night. They are making sure they have bail money ready in case they are arrested.

Work was put on hold for two months after 31 people were arrested for blocking access to the site, but telescope officials said this weekend that construction would start again Wednesday.

Astronomers revere the site because its summit at 13,796 feet is well above the clouds, and it provides a clear view of the sky for 300 days a year. There's also very little air and light pollution.

Opponents say the $1.4 billion project that will be 18 stories high will desecrate land that Native Hawaiians believe to be the home of deities. Some say it's time to curb development on the mountain, where 13 other telescopes sit.

Their protests prompted Gov. David Ige to say Hawaii must do a better job of caring for the mountain. But Ige said Thirty Meter Telescope has a right to proceed with construction, which the governor's office reiterated in a statement released late Tuesday.

"The state and Hawaii County are working together to uphold the law and ensure safety on roadways and on Mauna Kea, while allowing the people their right to peacefully and lawfully protest," the statement said.

The protesters - who call themselves protectors - will be respectful, said Kanuha, who was among those arrested.

"We're going to really have to stay dignified, not allowing anything, any word, any action to take us out of that state of being," Kanuha said.

Some of them spent Monday building an ahu, or a rock altar, in the road leading to the construction site, but he expects workers to move or destroy it.

"It's a symbol to show that the culture is still here, and it's a cultural site," Kanuha said. "When the public looks at Mauna Kea, what you see are telescopes. So the assumption is that this mountain belongs to foreign scientists."

The nonprofit Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory LLC will build and operate the telescope. Its partners include India, China, Canada, Japan and the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp., formed by the University of California and the California Institute of Technology.

Partners would receive a share of observing time, along with University of Hawaii scientists.

Mauna Kea was selected as the site for the observatory over Chile's Cerro Armazones mountain in 2009.

A crew of a few workers and vehicles will go to the site Wednesday for vehicle maintenance and to install safety fencing, Mike Bolte, a Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory board member, said in an email through a public relations firm.

"I will try my best not to get arrested," Kanuha said. "But there are two options: You stand and resist, or you move to the side and allow them to desecrate."

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Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/JenHapa .

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