I got a call from my dad one afternoon, and he told me that his coworker has an old friend who's lived on the island for a long time and knows a lot about the TMT conflict. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I gave Josh Porter a cold call, and five minutes later, he had invited me to his home the next day.
A bleak, grey-violet haze permeated the afternoon drive to South Kohala as a brushfire crackled in the distance, eating up dead branches and sending thick waves of smoke billowing down the hills. It seemed like hours before the clouds finally opened up, like a ceramic bowl broken into shards. In one "Let there be light" moment, pastures and cattle ranches of Waimea were drenched in gold. The sleepy town is defined in part by the Hawaiian cowboy culture known as paniolo.
Nestled in the rolling olive and taupe hills of a gated equestrian community was Porter’s home, a modern wooden structure with high ceilings and a back patio where we looked out at the landscape and chatted. He wore jeans and a black Matco Tools t-shirt, and a tattoo peeked out from under his sleeve when he reached for his beer from the coffee table. Two floppy-eared dogs gallivanted around the patio furniture, itching to be included.
Having grown up on the island, Porter is no stranger to the issues affecting the day-to-day lives of Hawaiians, many of which are residual from colonization. He’s been there since the birth of TMT, and has seen firsthand the turmoil that’s resulted from both the astronomers’ efforts to build it and the opposition’s efforts to prevent it. Porter’s opinions come from a chiefly pragmatic standpoint, influenced in part by the effects protests have had on people's careers and businesses.
Many of Josh Porter’s cousins are police officers who were at the Mauna Kea Access Road while demonstrators were blocking it. At one point, the people who had set up camp said they were going to build a structure on the road, a school where they could teach children. Law enforcement told them that if a permanent structure was built, they’d be required to take it down. Despite this, a little wooden structure appeared on the road.
When law enforcement arrived, they tried to enter the structure to make sure it was empty, so no one would be harmed when they deconstructed it. But the builders had screwed a Hawaiian flag over the doorway in a way that made it impossible to enter without cutting the flag. This resulted in content on social media showing law enforcement cutting the Hawaiian flag, which would likely conjure up a draconian, even dictatorial reel in viewers' minds. According to Porter, this was done on purpose.
“A lot of the police were just disgusted,” he said. “Because they’re made to look bad on social media, and then they're not getting backing from our government. I know a couple guys who resigned, and they were like, ‘This is dumb. What are we even here for?’”
Overall, Porter believes that there was a lot of tension that didn’t need to happen between TMT supporters and protesters. He described himself as someone who can understand and respect both sides, and wants people in Hawai'i to be able to do the same.
Porter supports TMT being built, so long as there is a requirement to decommission the old observatories that aren’t being used, so that the land can be restored and Hawai'i can remain on the advanced side of science.
However, he wouldn't say he disagrees with the opposition completely. Growing up on the island, he had always heard talk about the mountain being sacred. But, after having been up there countless times, he said he never once saw somebody go up there to pray or to give a gift or an offering.
“So I struggle to understand why that was promoted so heavily,” he said. “But I can certainly understand it being the final straw that broke the camel's back, with local people saying, ‘Hey, you took away our beaches, and you built hotels, and this is the final straw.’ I can understand it from that standpoint.”
After high school, Porter went to the mainland for about ten years. He started off at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, as a chemistry major, then ended up at business school in Arizona. He stayed there awhile and worked for a company called Trimble Navigation, but came back to go into business with his father.
He has friends on the island he’s known since kindergarten, and knows people with all different opinions on TMT. He has some good friends that work for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, and even knows a police officer who had to be at the Access Road while his own wife was protesting.
“Or for instance, one of my daughter’s classmates’ father is an astronomer, and another classmate’s mother is one of the major organizers,” he said. “So, even in just the classroom, everybody has a strong opinion, one way or another. It's on the bumper stickers when you pull up into that PTA meeting, or soccer or whatever. You see both sides.”
Although he said his circle of friends has always been respectful of everyone’s opinion, one of his friends was verbally attacked for having a pro-TMT sticker. He said that from what he's noticed, the people who are against TMT have been more abusive to the people who are in support of it, which has led to many TMT supporters being more silent out of fear of being isolated or singled out.
Porter said that everyone needs a reason to be supporting their side. Lots of people oppose TMT because they said that chemicals from the observatory will permeate the ground and leak into the water system on the island.
“From a logical standpoint, this ranch sits at 4000 feet, and to get water, we have 4000-foot wells that we have to pump out,” he said. “So let's go up to the top of that mountain at 13,000 feet. They won't drill down over 10,000 feet, so they're not going to get anywhere near the water table. And there's not a lot of rainfall up there. There's not a lot of water that would hit anything and then permeate it and take it down into the ground. So the concern from a scientific standpoint of affecting the water table or damaging it doesn't exist.”
He doesn’t want to say that nothing will ever seep into the ground, and recognizes the concern over what chemicals will be stored up there. But he believes there are ways to inspect it and mitigate concern without getting close to the water table.
“To me, it really comes down to it being a spiritual reason for why they don't want it, and they're looking for a reason to support it,” he said. “I'd rather they just say it's a spiritual reason than jump behind bad science or something that's inaccurate.”
A good friend’s father in law is from Moloka'i, and Porter said that back in the day, the man protested against industrialism and stopped Moloka’i from advancing to the holiday hot spot that Maui is today. However, there are now no jobs and the local people have had to move away.
“There's certainly a mindset there, saying, ‘We were born in Hawai'i and we deserve everything for free,’” he said. “I want to be a productive member of society. I have over 100 employees, and I want to make sure that they have a good life and their kids can have nice things and go to school.”
Regardless, Porter struggles to support TMT for solely economic reasons. He feels that it will create some construction jobs when it’s being built, but it won’t be permanent.
"The support centers for all the observatories are in Waimea, so there will probably be 20 or 30 there, but again—they're going to decommission some. So is there going to be a shift or a displacement?"
Imagining back to when Hawai'i was annexed, Porter wondered what it would be like if another country like Russia or Japan claimed Hawai'i first. Factoring out bias, he believes that the United States annexing Hawai'i was probably the best outcome.
“The reality is, nobody was gonna walk away, saying ‘Hawai'i is a badass place, we’re gonna leave and beat.’ That wasn’t gonna happen,” he said. “So yeah, I understand.”
Back in school, Porter said students were required to take Hawaiian history, but not Hawaiian language. He described Hilo as a melting pot of Caucasian people, Portuguese people, Asian people and lots of other ethnic groups.
“You grew up here with respect for others, you called your elders Aunty and Uncle, you didn't leave trash around,” he said. “You were a local person, no matter what color you were.”
He’s been back on the island for seventeen years. When the TMT protests would shut down the roads, there were days he was unable to get to work. Even worse, he said that because there is no leadership on the government side, the county and state agencies refused to do anything.
"I have friends who are contractors that had nothing to do with TMT and had to close their businesses or let people go because they couldn't get to work."
The highway would be blocked no matter what side you were on, he said, and it was hard to not be aware of the movement, because it affected traffic patterns. There was a time when actor Dwayne Johnson showed up and supported the movement, and when that happened, Porter had to turn around and drive an extra two hours to get home from work.
Even though police were present, Porter said they weren’t dispatched from a law and order standpoint and that they would only take action if someone was being physically hurt. And then when the demonstrators finally left, he said they left a lot of trash behind.
“My buddy, he didn't follow all of that,” Porter said. “So 16 years later, he comes back to the island and he's like, ‘What's all this trash?’ And I'm like, ‘Oh, we had a little protest.’ He asked when it was and I told him before COVID. He goes ‘Then why’s all the s**t still here?’ So they want to have the altar. I don't think that has to go. But, the pop-up tents and the Porta Potti. And the pallets on the side of the road and the mailboxes that somebody stole from somewhere that are still there.”
The stolen mailboxes, he said, don’t even get mail delivered to them.
“It was just a point that somebody was trying to make. Like, ‘This is ours, we're making it ours.’ That kind of thing. And that's still there.”
Since the road has reopened, Porter has been back up to the Mauna a few times. Before he and his wife had their daughter, who is now eight, they used to take drives up with a picnic lunch and do some target shooting in the middle. Recently, he came home from work and his wife asked him if he wanted to go up to the mountain and play in the snow.
“Now we can do that again,” he said. “That's the way it should be. You should be able to go up there and enjoy it, whatever your beliefs are.”
One of his friends is a mediator, who was trying pre-COVID to put together a focus group to get people from both sides together and talking. He asked Porter to join, knowing he is able to see both sides, and Porter agreed.
“It’s just a sad reality as a community of this island; we haven't been able to come together and just let people have their opinions,” he said. “Everybody feels like they have to defend it one way or another and attack somebody who has a different opinion. And to me, that's the most unfortunate thing. I respect the other side's opinion and I hope they respect mine.”