Hawaii Plantsman Confounds Greenies

Posted Feb. 10, 2003

By Eric P. Olsen
Insight Magazine

Robinson has managed to preserve some of the most endangered species on Earth at his Kauai Wildlife Reserve.

Nowhere does the logic of federal environmental policy seem more mismatched to endangered-species preservation than on Hawaii, an ecological anomaly 2,500 miles from the U.S. mainland. About as near to Washington as Albania -- actually Albania is closer -- the Hawaiian archipelago is the most remote and isolated ecosystem on Earth and a virtual command center of endangered species. Of 743 officially designated endangered plants in the United States, Hawaii has more than one-third of them. And nowhere is there a greater threat to the survival of these species than the aggressive land-lockdown tactics of the national environmental-preservation organizations, their lawyers and their fund-raisers.

But these environmental activists and regulators never have met anyone quite like Keith Robinson, the fifth-generation descendent of the legendary Sinclair family who arrived in Hawaii from New Zealand in the 1860s. Keith and his brother, Bruce, are joint owners of the seventh-largest Hawaiian island, Niihau, known throughout the state as kupu, or forbidden. Purchased for $10,000 in gold in 1872, the 72-square-mile island has been preserved from outside contact for 130 years. Niihau islanders trace their ancestry to before contact by Capt. James Cook in 1778. School and church services are held in native Hawaiian, and travel to the Forbidden Island is by personal invitation of the Robinsons only.

The Robinsons' astonishing preservation of Hawaiian language and traditions on Niihau is mirrored by Keith Robinson's commitment to endangered indigenous plants. The family also holds some 50,000 acres on Kauai -- breathtaking jungle-clad mountains, towering waterfalls and tropical forest that look like critical habitat for the likes of King Kong. (Indeed, Jurassic Park was filmed on Robinson lands, and the helicopter used in the opening scenes was Robinson's Niihau shuttle.)

In his trademark green hard hat and rusted-out Nissan pickup, Robinson is the plain-speaking, hands-on manager of his Kauai Wildlife Reserve, a self-described "outlaw operation" that for nearly 20 years has preserved some of the most endangered species on Earth. A typical day for Robinson can involve a backbreaking 18-hour trek into remote canyons to retrieve or care for a rare species, a grueling and single-minded enterprise for the 60-year-old.

"I give Keith tremendous credit," says John Fay, a biologist with the endangered-species program for the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in Washington. "He has done something truly remarkable with minimal resources. I visited his reserve probably 10 years ago, and I remember going over my notes later and realizing he was personally the guarantor of probably a dozen species of endangered plants."

Robinson's assessment of his successes is characteristically blunt: "My private, one-man Hawaiian endangered-species reserve is based on hard work, independent thought and old-fashioned moral standards. This combination worked just fine for America's Founding Fathers, and it still works well on the rare occasions when it is tried today."

Through the years Robinson has donated cuttings and seeds to state and private environmental organizations, but he has little patience for them today. "During the last 30 years," he says, "Hawaii's environmental establishment has become totally corrupt, motivated primarily by a lust for money and power. Now they have found that they can use the U.S. Endangered Species Act to seize zoning control of huge tracts of land, on the pretext that these areas are 'critical habitat' for endangered species."

Earlier this year critical-habitat designations were proposed for more than 60,000 acres on Kauai as a result of a 1997 lawsuit brought by Earthjustice -- an environmental law firm formerly known as the Sierra Club Defense Fund -- against the FWS. And according to Hawaii state forester Michael Buck, these designations "are just the beginning of a process that will systematically designate similar lands throughout the state that could encompass up to 500,000 acres -- or one-eighth of the land area of the entire state of Hawaii."

Robinson claims these designations are based on a systematic deception of the public. "Environmental extremists are wasting large sums of public money in expensive and completely useless habitat listings," he says. "The real truth is that Hawaii's endangered plants are biologically incompetent. This is the final, immutable, all-encompassing, result-determining reality of all propagation work with these species. They evolved for millions of years in benign isolation, where there were no significant threats or competition. Thus they lost their biological efficiency and were rapidly overwhelmed when thousands of efficient and aggressive species were introduced that evolved in the savage competition of continental ecosystems."

He continues, "They will relentlessly continue to decline to extinction in the wild, no matter how much alleged 'critical habitat' is designated by lines drawn on maps. Meanwhile, the environmental establishment has created a weird mixture of quackery, propaganda, supposition and wishful thinking, and have been so misled by it that they are almost totally unable to grow healthy populations of Hawaii's rarest plants. The only way they can be saved is by growing them in intensively managed and cultivated reserves, where they can be constantly protected."

These strong charges are backed not only by the record of his private preserve but by what Robinson describes as "a fantastic and incredible episode": the successful propagation of what the FWS has called "the rarest plant in the world." The beautiful Kokia cookei is native to the north coast of Molokai, but by the beginning of the 20th century, only a single tree was known to exist in the wild. This perished in 1918.

According to conventional wisdom, K. cookei declined to the brink of extinction because of habitat conversion, introduced grazing animals, loss of native pollinators and seed predation by insect larvae. For the last several decades the species has been kept alive by grafting it onto the rootstocks of two other extremely rare sister species. Kept alive, but no more. But in just two years since Robinson secretly obtained cuttings of Kokia cookei, he has managed to bring them to flower, and in the last few months, to produce seeds. He currently is nursing some three-dozen seedlings in a remote, undisclosed location.

The accomplishment is breathtaking.

"People sometimes ask me what I think is the single most endangered species on Earth, and I answer Kokia cookei," Fay says. "It is in effect just 'half' a species, because it is grafted to a related stock. If Keith has managed to propagate Kokia cookei as you have described, he has cracked one of the major barriers. The suspicion was that the gene pool was simply depleted."

For Robinson, this breakthrough only reinforces the doubts he has about the tactics, competence and credibility of the environmental establishment. "As a result of extensive work with the closely related sister species, I believed that there was no problem with pollinators or self-compatibility," he says. "Most endangered Hawaiian plant species got that way because they are biologically incompetent, and metabolic inefficiency is usually a major component of that. There are very effective ways to solve that problem, but you have to do a tremendous amount of extremely hard physical work in the process -- and the entire environmental establishment has always been intensely allergic to hard physical work."

Robinson explains, "To grow Kokia cookei from seed, for example, I had to spend several hours a day, for some 20 to 30 days, intensively cultivating the plants with a magnifying glass, tweezers, a matchstick and an eyedropper. If I had allowed even a couple of tiny ants to wander around on the seedlings, there is an excellent chance the plants would not have survived. And that is only one part of one phase of the work that was required to grow this one Hawaiian endangered species."

He adds, "When I first started growing endangered Hawaiian plants, I soon found out that the published scientific data is extremely inaccurate. And unlike the government and environmental groups, I relied on common sense instead of voodoo science, I learned from my mistakes instead of endlessly repeating them, and I worked far harder than they were willing to."

The propagation of Hawaii's most famous endangered species was a cloak-and-dagger affair that Robinson doesn't speak openly about. But he recalls mad dashes to get under cover when tour helicopters passed over, deliberately standing out in the open to be seen near decoy plants, moving secretively after dark and "silently aborting the mission if anything looked suspicious." In the end, he says, "the species was in peak condition when flowering season arrived. The plants produced flowers that were probably the best ever seen in a century. There were hundreds of them, maybe even thousands of them, and they were spectacularly beautiful."

The good seeds -- the main object of the project -- now are hidden in a secret location. Robinson originally planned to give these seeds away free to environmental agencies. But when he learned that family lands on Niihau and Kauai fell under the proposed critical-habitat designation he changed his mind. "Since they claim to be such experts," he says, "they can do the work and grow seeds themselves. The knowledge about how to grow these seeds has been kept secret. I never revealed it to anyone, and it will probably go to the grave with me. And there is a real chance that no one, including myself, will ever be able to grow K. cookei seeds again."

For years Robinson has defied environmental regulators by preserving plants he was unauthorized to handle. He once offered seeds of one of the world's rarest plants, the Solanum sandwicense, to the state-run Lyon Arboretum at the University of Hawaii, which refused, citing laws against the unlicensed handling of the species. Robinson then announced in Hawaii newspapers that he would send 10 seeds without charge to anyone interested. "I got more than 400 requests," he said in an earlier interview. "I handled each request personally, to ensure their privacy."

Robinson long has tried to get Hawaii's news media to report on his work and his conclusions that critical-habitat designations offer no protection for Hawaii's endangered plants and are a waste of public resources. "But they will not report that fact, even when I supply supporting data," he says. For Robinson, critical-habitat designations are more about political power, attorney fees and fund raising for environmental groups than endangered-species preservation. And he is not alone in his opinion.

On Kauai, an ad hoc community group, Concerned Citizens of Kauai and Niihau has gathered more than 2,500 signatures in opposition to the critical-habitat proposal. Native Hawaiians have joined hunters and small businesses to express concerns about access to federal lands and the impact the designation will have on land restrictions and property values due to the threat of crippling lawsuits.

The regulatory effect of the Endangered Species Act only pertains to federal lands and land use that may receive federal funds or involve federal permits. To fill in wetland, for example, requires a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. But critical-habitat designations also may influence the state to introduce far more restrictive measures through rezoning of lands as conservation districts.

The Endangered Species Act also has a citizen-lawsuit provision, which enabled Earthjustice to charge the FWS with failing to protect some 255 endangered species. The court agreed and required the FWS to draft the critical-habitat proposal. Still, Earthjustice staff attorney David Henkin insists that private landowners, as well as county and state governments, will continue to have unimpeded rights to their lands. "If I were a state or county agency or a private landowner and I wanted to pave over an area designated as critical habitat, nothing in the designation would stop me, as long as no federal agency were involved in the project. All the designation would do is give me better information about the importance of that habitat."

The 10,000-acre McCandless Ranch on the Big Island of Hawaii wasn't trying to pave over its lands, but merely trying to preserve the endangered 'alal¯a (the Hawaiian crow) when it was hit with a lawsuit by Earthjustice. "Prior to 1976, McCandless Ranch had cooperated with state biologists in their quest to study the 'alal¯a," ranch manager Keith Unger wrote in a July 2001 Honolulu Advertiser op-ed. "State biologists then decided that the only way to 'save' the 'alal¯a was to capture these last remaining birds and send them into captivity."

McCandless Ranch disagreed, which led to a lawsuit to force the implementation of the aggressive plan. McCandless lost, but the intrusive steps devastated the surviving population, with only two remaining in the wild. "Endangered species are not the winners," Unger says. "Attorneys are. We the taxpayers foot the bill."

All parties agree that rare and endangered species are worth protecting. Robinson has dedicated 20 years and perhaps $250,000 to just that cause. But Hawaii's endangered plants have proved particularly vulnerable, and critical-habitat designations covering vast land areas can antagonize private landowners, threaten property values and potentially restrict land use, while offering little tangible protection to threatened species.

"We've never said that critical-habitat designation is a silver bullet that will solve the endangered-species crisis on its own," Henkin concedes. "We see it as an important part of a comprehensive strategy. It is primarily a defensive measure to ensure that essential recovery habitat is not further degraded while we carry out the offensive part of the strategy -- the work on the ground to expand endangered-plant populations and decrease the threats from pigs and goats and encroaching alien plants."

"I have always applauded Keith's efforts," Henkin adds. "But the fact is that for many of these plants the threats are fairly easy to control, and it's quite reasonable to try to re-establish self-perpetuating populations in the wild."

Robinson dismisses this view as simply uninformed and thinks that his successes and the environmental establishment's failures speak for themselves. But he also believes there is a lesson to be learned beyond the science of endangered-species preservation.

"Biologically incompetent species have gone extinct since the world began," he notes. "That is a part of the natural process. But in a political and social context this tale may have some significance. I know of no other like it in the entire history of Hawaiian botany, and I probably wouldn't believe it if I hadn't personally lived it. One lone citizen, working in secrecy to evade environmentalists, was able in only two years to produce a seed crop of Hawaii's most famous endangered species. The fact that I successfully did the work that environmentalists and their allies were never able to do in 30 years says that maybe I have a better grasp of reality than they do."

Eric P. Olsen is associate executive editor at Insight's sister publication, The World & I magazine. He previously has written on the ecological and cultural preservation of the Hawaiian islands of Kahoolawe and Niihau.


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