now favors Navy
use of Niihau
A tour of the island helpedBy Anthony Sommer
allay his concerns but the state
Land Board will get to make
the final decision
PUUWAI, Niihau -- Following a daylong tour of Niihau, Gov. Ben Cayetano appeared ready yesterday to end the lengthy standoff between the state and the Robinson family over using the island to test a new family of Navy missiles.
"I think its a viable option," Cayetano said about the proposal by the Robinsons and the Navy to use the Forbidden Island in upcoming tests on Kauai of the Navy's $3 billion Theater Ballistic Missile Defense program.
The Navy last month approved the use of the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kauai, to test the missiles that have been designed to knock down incoming hostile rockets. But the use of Niihau as a launch site was left unresolved.
Cayetano pointed out there's a new chairman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Tim Johns, who also holds the title of state historic preservation officer.
Johns' predecessor, Mike Wilson, at various times called for a complete archaeological study of Niihau before approving the missile tests.
Although Wilson backed away from that position, he never clarified what studies would be required.
With that, brothers Keith and Bruce Robinson, the fifth generation of their family to own the island, withdrew their offer to the Navy.
Keith Robinson said repeatedly there are no cultural artifacts near any of the sites the Navy wants to use. Moreover, to catalog every archaeological site on Niihau would be an invitation to militant native Hawaiians to "invade" the island, Robinson said.
For almost a hundred years, the Robinson family has limited visits to Niihau to invited guests only. Under the proposal, Navy personnel would be allowed on the island only under the strict rules already used by military personnel who train there.
The governor and first lady Vicky Cayetano toured the island in a Humvee donated to the island by NASA following the Pathfinder test flights from the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai in 1997 and 1998.
Johns, School Superintendent Paul LeMahieu and the rest of the entourage followed in what was left of a 1950s Army weapons carrier.
The group had lunch at the Niihau school cafeteria.
They toured two proposed missile-launching sites and several locations from which a tethered blimp carrying instruments may be launched. They also flew over the site of a proposed 6,000-foot runway.
The Robinsons told the governor the Niihau Ranch was closed for economic reasons last year, leaving the island with an unemployment rate of 100 percent.
Without work from the military, the Robinsons told Cayetano, increased tourism may be the only way to provide jobs on the island. Tourism would be far more destructive to the culture of the isolated group of about 150, they argued.
By the end of the day, it was clear they had impressed Cayetano, who previously had not taken a position on the yearlong dispute.
"The state historic preservation officer is really dedicated, but the focus of the office is very narrow, and there is room for compromise. The future of the people living on Niihau is the most important consideration, and I think tourism would be a very disruptive solution."
"The nice thing about the military is that once they complete their mission, they pack up and leave," he added.
The governor stopped short, however of issuing an edict. Instead, he tossed the ball back to Johns.
"In the end, the Land Board will have to decide," Cayetano said.