By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Leland Tottori, center, explains the environmental impact
of the Navy's proposed Niihau missile launch site to Oahu
resident Nancy Aleck during a session at the Army
Reserve Assembly Hall yesterday.

Niihau residents
have concerns

They want their privacy and their culture
protected, according to a scholar

By Mary Adamski

Niihau residents' first concern about any change on the closed island is that "their privacy be protected and their language and culture remain intact," says a scholar who is collecting islanders' opinions on a proposed missile-launching facility.

Navy officials will have the observations and opinions of residents in a document being prepared by economist Philip Meyer, who has 12 years' experience on the so-called "forbidden island."

About 200 Hawaiian-speaking people live a rural lifestyle on the 72-square mile island southwest of Kauai, owned by the Robinson family.

"My scientific approach is not to depend on outside experts but to depend on their elders and community leaders," said Meyer of Meyer Resources Inc.

Meyer attended a "scoping" session yesterday at Fort Shafter at the beginning of preparation of an impact statement on the proposed $50 million expansion of the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.

The Navy is looking at the island as one of three launch sites to test primary weapons system against short-range ballistic missiles.

While other elements of the required environmental impact statement are being prepared by others, Meyer is the one asking Niihau residents "what do you think?"

The focus of his document will be "how the people live today ... and what they need for the future," said Meyer. "From their own eyes, and from my eyes as a professional ... it takes you up to the present and deals with the impacts of the projected future."

Outsiders including Hawaiian activists and environmentalist groups have opposed the Navy plan, but Niihau residents are waiting for specific information about the launching facility before taking a position on it, Meyer said.

The Navy already has an unmanned radar unit on the island and a contract with the Robinson family for maintenance of the generators and technical equipment. That arrangement has meant work for Niihau residents and has had a positive economic impact on their lives, Meyer said. "By the end of the year, they will have refrigeration" run by electricity generated by solar panels now being erected. "They know they got jobs and it hasn't damaged their life or culture. But as for the rest, they'll have to wait and see.

"Clearly, they have different ideas; the younger people are more interested in change. On the big issues there is unanimity ... about privacy and the freedom to choose their own way. They are making their own choices, and that is the key to satisfactory assimilation.

"The Robinsons become involved in what affects the island relationships with the outside. I have no doubt about the commitment of the family to have islanders live there as long as it is feasible, and the residents have indicated their contentment with that decision."

Meyer began asking residents for their opinions in the mid-1980s when he was working on a project for the National Marine Fisheries Laboratory in Honolulu. His work on the fishing patterns of island people took him to fishing clubs. "I was three hours into a talk with a Kauai club member when I discovered it was Keith Robinson" whose concern about depletion of reef fish led to an invitation that brought Meyer to Niihau.

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