After four years of controversy, Hawaii’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of building the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea, a volcano that is considered sacred in Hawaiian culture. A 4-1 ruling released Tuesday backed a decision by Hawaii’s department of land and natural resources (DLNR) to grant a construction permit for the $1.4 billion project, which will be one of the largest and most sophisticated observatories on Earth once it is completed.
Tensions over the telescope resulted in peaceful protests at the TMT groundbreaking ceremony on October 7, 2014. Demonstrators reiterated that Mauna Kea is a profoundly important cultural heritage site, and said their wishes to protect the mountain from further development had been ignored when the permit was granted in 2011.
Opposition to the TMT erupted in another protest on April 2, 2015, culminating in the arrests of 31 people, some of whom blocked the road to the summit. In December of that year, the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated the TMT’s building permit, ruling that the DLNR had not followed due process in approving it. That move opened up years of litigation, debate, and community engagement, and prompted the TMT organization to consider moving the observatory site to the Canary Islands.
Though Mauna Kea is especially contested, the TMT dispute reflects broader colonial disputes over “ceded lands”—Hawaiian crown territories that were annexed by the United States in the late 19th century.
The latest ruling is a response to DLNR appeals concerning the original permit, which has now been reinstated by the Court. Construction of the TMT is not likely to resume until next year, which would put the telescope on track for completion in 2029.
“On behalf of the TMT International Observatory, we are grateful for the Hawaii State Supreme Court’s ruling that will allow TMT to be built on Mauna Kea,” said TMT chair Henry Yang in a statement. “We thank all of the community members who contributed their thoughtful views during this entire process.”
For those who opposed the TMT, the ruling was met with disappointment, but also renewed activism. “There will be resistance,” Kahookahi Kanuha, who was arrested in the 2015 protests, told Hawaii News Now. “To protect our sacred places and our sacred sites [and] to legitimately respect and recognize Hawaiians.”
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.