Police arrest Hawaiian protesters trying to block telescope

Demonstrators gather to block a road at the base of Hawaii's tallest mountain on Monday

Astronomers have indefinitely stopped looking through 13 existing telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii while protesters block the road downslope in an attempt to prevent the construction of a giant new observatory.

Officials said construction equipment was expected to be brought up Mauna Kea on the Big Island later Wednesday to start building the $1.4 billion US Thirty Meter Telescope, which is expected to be one of the world's most advanced. But protests over construction on a mountain considered sacred by some Native Hawaiians stalled the project and sent it back to the courts.

Later Wednesday, Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, said at a news conference that he had issued an emergency proclamation that would allow the authorities to better manage roadways and cordon off certain areas on the mountain.

On Wednesday, 33 people were arrested during a sit-in on the Mauna Kea Access Road, a state spokesperson told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Observations won't resume until staff have consistent access to the summit, said Jessica Dempsey, the deputy director of the East Asian Observatory, one of the existing telescopes.

Authorities didn't arrest anyone, saying their priority was installing concrete barriers along a nearby highway to create a buffer between speeding cars and the large numbers of people congregating in the area.

Protesters said they told authorities that they would allow telescope technicians to pass if they could drive one auto to the summit each day for cultural and religious practices. "We made a decision to gather here as of last night to come here and stand for Mauna Kea".

But other Native Hawaiians say they do not believe the project will desecrate Mauna Kea. Most of the cultural practices on the mountain take place away from the summit, said Annette Reyes, a Native Hawaiian from the Big Island.

She said that the telescopes have very delicate instruments that need to be cared for on a daily basis by crews of technicians who go up the mountain every day to maintain the systems.

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Reyes said many others agree, but they're reluctant to publicly support the telescope because of bullying from protesters, a group she calls a "vocal minority".

People also took to the streets Wednesday throughout the Hawaiian islands, including outside the State Capitol and on Maui, to peacefully protest the project. Dozens of researchers from around the world will not be able to gather data and study the sky.

A group of existing telescopes sit atop Mauna Kea and have been used by NASA and other scientists to make discoveries about space for decades.

She challenged the characterization of the dispute as a clash between science and culture.

"Everything they did was science, from growing fish and taro to wayfinding", Reyes said.

Over the years, activists have staged protests and filed lawsuits to halt the telescope's construction.

The project's construction permits have been approved and re-approved amid a lengthy legal battle, and construction was due to start this week. It would be built by an global partnership called the TMT worldwide Observatory, led by the University of California and the California Institute of Technology but also including Japan, China, India and Canada.

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