State to Withdraw Presence From Maunakea as Part of Indefinite Stand Down

December 19, 2019, 1:10 PM HST (Updated December 19, 2019, 1:28 PM)
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Mauna Protectors Billy Freitas embraces another protector during the third day of the TMT standoff. July 17, 2019. PC: Crystal Richard

Gov. David Ige has announced an indefinite withdrawal of state law enforcement from Maunakea, citing the Thirty Meter Telescope’s intention not to immediately move forward with construction on the mountain.

“We have been informed that the Thirty Meter Telescope will not be proceeding with construction at this time,” Ige said in a press conference that began a little after 11 a.m. Thursday “So we have made a decision that we will be withdrawing our personnel so that they can enjoy the holidays with everyone else.”

Ige did not provide a timeline for when state personnel would remove itself entirely from Maunakea or how long that removal might last. The number of officials and equipment on the mountain was not specified, as Ige cited the administration’s position not to divulge operational details.

He also did not elaborate on the reasoning behind TMT’s decision, though he did say this is not the end of TMT in the state.

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“They are not abandoning Hawai‘i,” Ige said. “The County and State will be prepared to provide access when TMT is ready.”

TMT sent out a statement just before 12:30 p.m. Thursday addressing the situation and what it views as the failure of both the State and Hawai‘i County to live up to promises made.

TMT protest, DAY 3, Wednesday, July 17, 2019. PC: Gerald Besson

“Over the last five months, we participated in frequent discussions with the State on finding a peaceful, lawful and non-violent way forward on Maunakea,” said Dr. Gordon Squires, TMT Vice President for External Relations. “Unfortunately, the state and Hawai‘i County have not demonstrated that they are able to provide safe, sustained access to Maunakea for everyone. For us, this dates all the way back to our groundbreaking in October 2014 and subsequent attempts to begin construction in April and June 2015 and in July 2019.”

“We are participating in private conversations with community leaders, but these conversations will take time,” Squires’ statement continued. “Maunakea remains our preferred site.”

In the meantime, Ige said the State is encouraging demonstrators to remove themselves and their campsite as part of a “de-escalation” that will “restore access to Maunakea for the general public.”

Astronomers have been granted access by the Kia‘i, or protectors of Maunakea, to conduct their regular business at various telescope sites on the mountain.

As for what happens if the activists choose not to move remains unclear, and trust between the State and protectors remains an issue.

A source told Big Island News Thursday afternoon that Kūpuna on Maunakea have no intention of immediately vacating the mountain.

Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a prominent member of the Kia‘i, said via social media Thursday that demonstrators have been told by Hawai‘i Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement, a branch of the DLNR, that they will be arrested if they don’t move off Maunakea within an established timeline.

“So while the gov talks about sending law enforcement home because tmt is taking some time off he fails to mention that DOCARE is threatening to arrest us enmasse if we donʻt actively clear the road by Dec 26,” Wong-Wilson wrote on Facebook.

TMT protest, DAY 3, Wednesday, July 17, 2019. PC: Gerald Besson

Mayor Harry Kim said he was unaware of any such timeline or dictate from the State, adding that Ige has tasked the County with coordinating the peaceful removal of protectors from Maunakea now that TMT has announced no immediate plans to move forward with construction.

“I don’t know (about) any of that,” Kim said. “I was told to coordinate that side of it.”

The Mayor said he’d reached out to Wong-Wilson before hearing her online contention that DOCARE has threatened arrests. His move to contact her is an attempt to work out the details of clearing Mauna Kea Access Road in a safe and timely manner, Kim continued.

Kim met with HPD Chief Paul Ferreira Thursday afternoon to discuss withdrawing County enforcement from the mountain. The two have established a timeline to complete that removal by 3:30 p.m. Friday.

“We are starting to make arrangements to have our equipment and officers leave the area,” Assistant Police Chief Sam Thomas said Wednesday.

Big Island residents have been told to expect delays on Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road, while police disassemble and transport equipment off-site.

There has been no decision from the Mayor’s Office or the State on how long HPD officers will stand down from their Maunakea enforcement, or if they’ll ever return to the mountain in that capacity at all. However, Kim echoed Ige’s comments that he does not believe this signals the end of TMT in Hawai‘i.

The governor’s move to stand down on Maunakea comes on the heels of a decision by the Hawai‘i County Council to reject an agreement between the State and Mayor Kim to reimburse the County for Maunakea-related costs to the tune of $10 million.

Councilmembers unanimously shot down the resolution, which would have also stipulated County law enforcement remain on the hook for enforcement related to the mountain for the next five years. The Council also decried the process that led to the resolution, saying they weren’t consulted and were concerned about the transparency of the deal.

To date, the County has spent nearly $5 million on police overtime to patrol Maunakea, and the overall tab for State and County entities has run up to $15 million.

Ige said cost was a secondary factor in his decision to withdraw police presence from the mountain, adding the State will find the resources to provide TMT access if and when the time comes.

He said the State intends to honor its commitment to Hawai‘i Island to send reimbursement for costs related to the demonstration.

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter, and radio talk show personality covering college athletics in Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing, and his work as a sports columnist.

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