HONOLULU (AP) — A long-running effort to build one of the world’s largest telescopes on a mountain sacred to Native Hawaiians is moving forward after a key approval Thursday, reopening divisions over a project that promises revolutionary views into the heavens but has drawn impassioned protests over the impact to a spiritual place.
Hawaii’s land board granted a construction permit for the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope atop the state’s tallest mountain, called Mauna Kea, but opponents vowed to keep fighting. Protesters willing to be arrested were successful in blocking construction in the past.
“For the Hawaiian people, I have a message: This is our time to rise as a people,” said Kahookahi Kanuha, a protest leader. “This is our time to take back all of the things that we know are ours. All the things that were illegally taken from us.”
Opponents can appeal the decision, but it wasn’t immediately clear what they plan to do. Project officials didn’t immediately comment or discuss plans for construction.
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Richard Ha, a Native Hawaiian farmer who supports the project, urged avoiding confrontation.
“The possibility of getting the best telescope in the world … I don’t feel is the right battle to fight,” he said. “It will hurt our own people.”
While opponents say constructing the telescope will desecrate Mauna Kea, supporters tout the instrument’s ability to provide long-term educational and economic opportunities.
“This was one of the most difficult decisions this board has ever made,” state Board of Land and Natural Resources Chairwoman Suzanne Case said in a statement about the 5-2 decision.
Plans for the project date to 2009, when scientists selected Mauna Kea after a five-year around-the-world campaign to find the ideal site for what telescope officials said “will likely revolutionize our understanding of the universe.”
The project won a series of approvals from Hawaii, including a permit to build on conservation land in 2011. Protesters blocked attempts to start construction. Then in 2015, the state Supreme Court invalidated the permit, saying the board’s approval process was flawed, and ordered the project to go through the steps again.
Protests disrupted a groundbreaking in 2014 and intensified after that. Construction stopped in 2015 after 31 demonstrators were arrested for blocking the work.