By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Keith Robinson surveys Niihau
from aboard the family's helicopter.
Our private paradise
Polio didn't strike Niihau. So far, neither has AIDS.
Meat is free; so is the housing. The unique Hawaiian
environment is mostly intact. Keith Robinson wants
to keep it that way. In this essay, he reveals his
perspective on the Robinson family's stewardship
of Niihauits own private paradise.
Niihau isn't the backward little stone-age concentration camp that most of the outside world probably thinks it is, but it is private. We bought Niihau fairly, squarely and honestly, and the island is our private property.
The Niihau people who live there are, legally, our guests. Unlike tenants, they pay no rent and there are no formal contractual obligations.
For private reasons of our own, we have for decades given those guests free but revocable privileges that are probably far greater than those allowed by any other landowner in America.
They are given free housing. They also have unlimited supplies of free mutton and pork, and beef is available to them at prices far below what the general public pays.
They also get free transportation on Niihau Ranch trucks and free transportation of their supplies and belongings on the Niihau Ranch barge.
For almost a century, we have reserved some 200 acres of good land for their vegetable gardens, immediately adjacent to Puuwai village. Anyone who wants to grow vegetables there has only to ask; but for about 30 years, no one has gardened there.
By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Keith Robinson at
They have free hunting, fishing, camping and sightseeing access to every part of a relatively unspoiled private island -- probably the only place in all Hawaii and maybe even the entire United States where this occurs. We have carefully maintained the privacy of their community, and also have not permitted the kind of immigration and settlement that has submerged and destroyed the Hawaiian language and culture everywhere else in Hawaii.
From time to time, we also have established programs and policies designed to protect the health and welfare of those guests. As a direct result of this, Niihau was probably the only island in all Hawaii to escape the great polio epidemic that swept the U.S. in the 1950s.
It was also the only Hawaiian island to be totally vaccinated (for free) during the so-called "swine flu" scare some 10-15 years ago.
I suspect that, at present, it is the only Hawaiian island that has never had a case of AIDS. Our drug problem is also far smaller than those of other communities in Hawaii.
When it comes to business matters, the job opportunities on Niihau are reserved for these same guests. We preferentially hire from among them. We employ about 2-3 times as many people as we actually need.
I estimate that we have lost somewhere between $8-9 million trying to keep people employed. This figure does not count income loss from giving free housing and free meat to a community of 150-200 people.
On top of everything else, we give these same guests a certain amount of advisory input into our affairs, and often try to accommodate their wishes.
For example, their village and favorite shell-gathering beaches have been reserved for them by wide exclusion zones in our military project planning.
To put it bluntly, I don't know of any other landowner anywhere in the United States who does nearly as much for guests as we do. During the past century, they have received an enormous amount of privileges and benefits from us.
Now, in exchange for those privileges and benefits, we do require certain things.
First and foremost, we require that they shall not do or say anything that adversely affects our constitutional right to enjoy the security and privacy of our property and business affairs.
We have been severely hammered in the past by Hawaii's ruling political machine. That situation eventually became so flagrant that, at one point, one of their bureaucrats openly and casually admitted they were deliberately discriminating against us. We now intensely distrust the political machine, and feel that the less known about our affairs, the less damage will be done to us.
In addition, the Niihau people clearly understand that the less the outside world knows about our property, the less trouble we and they will have with theft, vandalism, trespassing and destructive meddling.
Above all else, discussion with outsiders of national defense research projects being conducted on the island is taboo. The national security is to be strictly respected and upheld.
There have been times when this silence was critical. For example, part of the research that established the Distant Early Warning Line -- the great shield that first protected Americans and the free world from surprise missile attack -- was done in intense secrecy on Niihau.
Nobody there talked, the project was successfully completed and Russia was prevented from being able to cripple the U.S. with a nuclear "Pearl Harbor."
We still require that same silence today, both to maintain our constitutional right to security and privacy, and to protect the security of any national defense projects we may undertake.
The second thing that we require of Niihau residents is that they maintain a reasonably honest, sober and moral lifestyle as long as they are living on our property. Anybody who does not do so is subject to possible expulsion.
The Robinson family operations include a one-of-a-kind upland endangered species reserve and marine endangered species preservation. Among other things, Niihau is apparently the only island in the world that has been successfully recolonized by monk seals in the present century.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that we have created a conservation empire. But the hard fact remains that a lot of things that have disappeared everywhere else still survive on our land, like endangered species, clean streams, Hawaiian-speaking communities, etc.
For more than half a century , we have managed to successfully balance all of these different and sometimes conflicting parts of our operation, including agricultural business, national defense research, environmental conservation and cultural preservation.
This work hasn't been cheap or easy, and most of the time we were being badly strained, both physically and financially. Since we are human, we have made our share of mistakes along the way.
We often have been the target of all sorts of criticism from politicians and activists and the news media.
This situation will no doubt regularly continue. But now we are used to it. Political mudslingers, screaming activists and cesspool-diving journalists are a basic part of modern life.
But when everything else is said and done, one hard fact remains: For more than half a century, we have consistently accomplished all sorts of things, especially preservation and conservation work that none of our critics ever did. And we continue to stand squarely on our constitutional rights to do our work, especially national defense work, in the security and privacy of our own property.
In the long run, no situation has ever remained unchanged throughout human history. We will try to maintain the place as long as we reasonably can, but can obviously make no permanent guarantees.
Several years ago, after many decades of relative prosperity in the sugar business, Hawaii's economy finally began to wither under heavy government regulation and taxation.
Today the state's agricultural self-sufficiency has been completely destroyed, and hard times exist everywhere. At the moment, we have very little extra money to subsidize Niihau.
Under these circumstances, it is rather incredible that a single family has somehow managed to maintain an entire community for so long.
Keith Robinson's family owns Niihau
and he is also manager of the Kauai Wildlife Reserve.
Niihau was the subject of a four-page special report in
the Star-Bulletin July 14. The report was the result of a
rare invitation to visit the island extended to writer
Catherine Kekoa Enomoto and photographer Ken Ige.
Niihau Special Report
July 14, 1997