Updated: Dec. 26, 2:15 p.m.
Hawaii County is temporarily closing the Mauna Kea Access Road on Hawaii Island until Saturday as the road is cleared and made completely accessible to the public, Mayor Harry Kim announced Thursday. This follows a morning when public traffic was flowing around protestersʻ tents on the road.
In the announcement, the mayorʻs office said the clearing will involve state and county agencies "working together with the protectors," a reference to the protesters who call themselves kiʻai or protectors.
The access road will reopen on Saturday once the way is cleared, coinciding with the reopening of the Hale Pohaku Visitor Center.
"During the road closure, access will be limited to telescope personnel, ranchers, conservation workers, hunters and cultural practitioners, as previously arranged," the mayor said. "The County of Hawaiʻi appreciates everyoneʻs cooperation and understanding of the temporary closure."
A spokesperson for the protesters confirmed that the group has agreed to the clearing of the road. "After strong deliberation, we have agreed that this is in the best interest of all of us," said Noe Noe Wong-Wilson.
The stand down will last for two months, during which time the protesters plan to continue the dialogue with government officials and the TMT group developing the telescope.
But Wong-Wilson went on to say that despite the agreement, the group’s ultimate goal remains unchanged. "We do not believe TMT should be built on this mountain, that buildings should be built on this mountain. But the way we go about talking about and working with the county and state agencies and the astronomers is something that has changed today," she said. Details of the agreement were outlined in a letter from Mayor Kim to Wong-Wilson (see below). Gov. David Igeʻs office said it had no comment on Thursdayʻs developments.
Earlier in the day, Major Samuel Jelsma with Hawaii County police said that although tents set up by protesters remained in the road, traffic was flowing on either side. If anyone is being blocked, he or she can call police, he said.
Protesters who set up the "kupuna tents" on the access road had said they planned to stay put and allow all but those connected to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope up the mountain.
The demonstrators, who call themselves kiʻai or protectors, say Mauna Kea is sacred and the telescopeʻs construction would be a desecration. The project has received all required government permits, however, and can legally proceed.
State authorities officially closed the access road in July to allow equipment for the Thirty Meter Telescope to move to its building site. Opponents of the telescope then converged at the base of the mountain to stop the construction, creating a stalemate that has persisted for five months.
The state reopened the summit road last week after the governor announced he was withdrawing law enforcement personnel from the area.
The withdrawal followed news from the Thirty Meter Telescope International Organization, developer of the project, that it was suspending construction plans at this time, citing the inability of the state and Hawaii County to ensure safe access to the building site.
Despite the governor's move toward de-escalation by withdrawing enforcement officers, demonstrators said they were staying where they are. However, they also stated they will not obstruct anyone who is not part of TMTʻs construction from using the summit road.
Anti-TMT organizer and spokesman Kahookahi Kanuha said a senior conservation enforcement officer gave demonstrators a Thursday deadline to clear out or face arrest.
"He is asking, and proposing, that we remove ourselves from the road along with these structures and he has given us until December 26th to have this road cleared," Kanuha said in a video posted to various social media platforms on Thursday.
The governor’s office would not confirm that such an ultimatum had been issued, saying only that the administration would not disclose operational details.
When he announced law enforcement would pull out, Ige himself was specifically asked by a reporter what would happen to protesters who remained in place. He declined to address the matter, saying only that state agencies were supporting Hawaii County by request.
HPRʻs Ashley Mizuo contributed to this report.