Demonstrators in St. George join protest against giant telescope project in Hawaii

Demonstrators in St. George, Utah, protest a giant telescope project planned for construction in Hawaii. July 26, 2019 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

HONOLULU (AP) — Protesters in St. George joined a national demonstration against a giant telescope planned for Hawaii’s tallest mountain, which supporters say will enhance humanity’s knowledge of the universe and bring high-paying jobs.

An international consortium plans to build the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope at the top of Mauna Kea, which some Native Hawaiians believe is sacred. Protesters blocked the road to the top of the mountain for the 12th day Friday. In St. George, a large group gathered along River Road in solidarity with the protest.

Kaho’okahi Kanuha, a protest leader, told reporters in Hawaii last week that efforts to stop the telescope were about protecting Hawaii’s indigenous people.

“This is about our right to exist,” he said. “We fight and resist and we stand, or we disappear forever.”

Ancient Hawaiians considered the location kapu, or forbidden, according to the University of Hawaii. Only the highest-ranking chiefs and priests were allowed to make the long trek to Mauna Kea’s summit above the clouds.

Demonstrators in St. George, Utah, protest a giant telescope project planned for construction in Hawaii. July 26, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Kyle Vreeken, St. George News

The Hawaii Supreme Court last year ruled that the telescope project had a valid permit, clearing the way for work to begin after a decadelong battle.

Supporters of the project also are impassioned about why they believe the telescope belongs on Mauna Kea, which has the best conditions for viewing the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere.

The telescope is expected to allow astronomers to peer back some 13 billion years in time to shortly after the Big Bang. It’s expected to help astronomers determine whether life exists on planets outside the solar system and better understand fundamental concepts like gravity.

Chad Kalepa Baybayan, a Native Hawaiian expert in the traditional art of using the stars, weather and birds to navigate the seas, said astronomy advances human knowledge.

“I’ve heard the comment that the protesters want to be on the right side of history,” Baybayan said. “I want to be on the right side of humanity. I want to be on the right side of enlightenment.”

The sun sets behind telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, July 14, 2019 | Associated Press photo by Caleb Jones, St. George News

He said people have to learn to share the mountain and there was more than enough space for everybody. Baybayan said he views the summit as a spiritual place but not a sacred one.

The economic benefits of the project are substantial, particularly in a state heavily reliant on low-paying service industry jobs in the tourism business. The Thirty Meter Telescope is projected to create 300 union construction jobs during its eight- to 10-year construction phase. It’s expected to employ 140 employees when operational.

Hawaii could lose its status as a world leader in astronomy if the telescope isn’t built, said Bob McLaren, the director of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy. Existing telescopes may not want to upgrade facilities and make further investments, and it could lead to a downward spiral for the field, he said.

Last weekend, 2,000 people joined the protest camp in Hawaii. Actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson visited the protesters this week to declare he stood with them.

Written by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. St. George News contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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