Niihau -- Island at a Crossroad -- Special Report

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin

Niihau heir Keith Robinson drinks directly from the stream
in his reserve on Kauai. He says he doesn't know of many
other streams in Hawaii where this is possible.

Nurturing ‘natives’

Keith Robinson, the family's
'black sheep,' is of a breed as rare as
the Hawaiian plants he raises

By Catherine Kekoa Enomoto

KEITH Robinson, a 55-pound bale of fencing wire slung across his 5-foot-10, 165-pound frame, scampers swiftly down the sides of valleys and up steep ridges.

"Hey, you, hurry up!" he barks over his shoulder at his companions as they struggle along the trail behind him on this humid afternoon.

Robinson, with his Gary Cooper looks, blue eyes, hard hat and machete, is hiking through his 100-acre Kauai Wildlife Reserve at the junction of the Maha'ikona and Kawaipapa valleys of western Kauai.

The reserve is accessible only by foot and everything Robinson needs to care for it has to be hauled in on his back.

There he devotes the same care and diligence in preserving native Hawaiian plant species as his family has in supporting and protecting the people and island of Niihau.

In fact, Robinson refers to the 80 varieties of endangered plants he nurtures in the reserve as "natives" and speaks of them as if they are people -- actually, recalcitrant children whose best interests he is resigned to protect. He shakes his head and calls them "terrible rare" and "bloody rare."

The 56-year-old Robinson toils in the reserve eight hours a day, six days a week. He chain saws and burns away encroaching forests of guava, hau and kukui, then plants, waters, sprays and monitors the natives.

His natives include brilliantly colored blossoms that bloom and seed nowhere else in the world, 12-foot rare native trees that are being nurtured into their 80-foot potential, and fragile and frilly plants, one of which (Cyanea pinnatifida) will flower outdoors for the first time in some 30 years. He anticipates growing 100 endangered Hawaiian plant species by the new millennium.

From his work come tens of thousands of seeds from these endangered species which he distributes without charge to such organizations as the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Lyon Arboretum.

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin

Robinson shows off a rare red-tipped Abutilon
sandwichensis at his reserve on Kauai.

Robinson comes from hard-working, stubborn yet prosperous Anglo-Scottish stock that emigrated to Hawaii from New Zealand in the 1860s. They came as farmers and ranchers.

He is the great-great-grandson of Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair, often cited as buyer of Niihau, although her sons' names appear in the land records. The purchase price of $10,000 was paid in an estimated 1,000 ounces of gold. Family members were personal friends of the royal family and opposed the 1893 American overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Robinson's mother, Helen Robinson, 86, inherited Niihau island. The Sinclair-Gay-Robinson family lands once included Lanai island, but the Gay branch bought it and eventually lost it to the Doles. The descendants also own most of the Makaweli ahupua'a, a pie-shaped watershed running from mountain to sea in western Kauai. Family interests have encompassed sugar, pineapple, cattle and sheep. The family's wholly owned Gay & Robinson Inc. cultivates some 6,000 acres in sugar on Kauai.

Bruce, 54, Keith's younger brother, is Niihau Ranch's managing agent. He is also second in command for the Gay & Robinson sugar plantation and a principal with Niihau Helicopter Inc. He is married to a Niihauan and has, by two marriages, six children ranging in age from toddler to 20-something.

Keith describes his brother as quiet, patient and a hard-working genius who "looks so worn out. He's just stretched terribly thin on all three fronts." He says he and Bruce are close and enjoy a good working relationship, but "as much as possible I keep my nose out of things and let him do his work."

The elder Robinson is the self-admitted "family black sheep, outcast. I'm comfortable with that role. I'm off by myself doing my own thing."

That own thing is his reserve. Keith, like Bruce, graduated from the University of California at Davis, studying agronomy and ranch management.

He was foreman on Koolau Ranch on Kauai for seven years, then a commercial fisher for seven years.

He's a bachelor. His old, brown truck tells an eloquent story: It is a rusty, leaking pickup piled with gardening equipment and old newspapers.

"I am like a bear in a cave," he says. "I have no time for niceties."

His cache at the reserve that holds sprayers, buckets and other equipment reveals his workaday foodstuff -- a bottle of dry roasted peanuts. When he's thirsty he drinks from a waterfall because "Robinson family lands are among the last places in Hawaii where you can safely drink pure, unspoiled water directly from mountain streams."

Keith lives with his mother in the relatively modest ranch home in Makaweli in west Kauai where he grew up. He's gentle but distracted with his mother; she is sweet and unnoticing. The family includes an old horse, Fresno, that meanders untethered in the yard, and a friendly ranch dog, Tippy.

The house is adjacent to the Niihau Helicopter hangar. The chopper stirs up red dust, which blankets the house.

Robinson is talkative, opinionated and unabashedly Christian. He is for free enterprise and less government. He's trim, balding, ornery and polite; he calls himself a dinosaur while a Niihau cowboy described him as "the last of the old-fashioned Robinsons."

Once past his straightforward, un-P.C. way of speaking, he reveals an honest person of strong conviction. He says he allowed the Star-Bulletin on Niihau as a preemptive strike.

"I did it defensively to get our side on the public record. Whenever possible I try to avoid the media; in the long run it causes nothing but problems. Personal publicity is an incidental thing to maintaining a defensive posture against environmental and any other wackos."

He likened the Navy's proposed test missiles to blanks. "These are basically target rockets. When I think of missiles I think of an intercontinental ICBM that's got a nuke on it and it's flying out of a silo. This is a glorified firework that comes off a 10- to 15-foot-long launcher. It goes out there and pretends that it's an Iraqi SCUD and they shoot at it."

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin

Robinson takes a stroll along Keanahaki Bay on Niihau
where the sun-bleached jawbone of a sheep
gleams against the ground.

Of his family's commitment to Niihauans he admitted, "There is a certain, shall we say, ethic ... We've been trying for years to just be a steady force.

"But at this point, neither Bruce nor the Niihau people have a great many options left. Even if the Navy does come in, the federal project faces two years of very grim financial sledding before the first real financial benefit shows up."

At the bottom of the reserve, Robinson tosses corn to wild chickens and pheasants that inhabit the area. Then the hike starts: a strenuous haul through thick, prickly brush; over and up rocky slopes, some of them almost vertical -- and slippery. He stops every few yards and discourses on the "natives," naming each by genus and species.

"You have no idea what it's like carrying a backpack and 10-foot spray boom and spraying every single plant every two to four weeks, fighting the leaf hopper," he says chidingly, like a tender-gruff geezer.

"A friend looked at my work and says, 'Keith, all this proves is that you're crazy. No sane man would work this hard.'

"I tend to think he's kind of right. When I am gone the reserve will collapse. When Bruce is gone, the monk seals will evaporate from Niihau.

"There are so many things that we just support as a matter of course -- wildlife conservation, watershed preservation, monk seals on Niihau, a Hawaiian-speaking community on Niihau, trying to keep the Hawaiians satisfied when the monk seals are eating their fish.

"Who knows what will happen in this day of steadily rising taxes and government hostility to private landowners? All these conflicts and juggling acts. Eventually it gets very stressful and expensive."

But in the family's enterprising tradition, Robinson plans to start eco-tourism tours through the Kauai Wildlife Reserve within the next one to four years. He will charge $100 per person for the privilege of scrambling after him up the slopes while he shouts "Hurry up!"

He's a character with Cooper looks, Cousteau drivenness and absent-minded professor self-deprecation.

"I'm just a tired old has-been with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel," he laughs.

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