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Hawaii's rare breeds: after decades of solitary effort to save Hawaii's rarest plants, one man halts his efforts in response to government-environmentalist attacks private property rights.

In Hawaii, a man named Keith Robinson, who has one of the most successful records in that state for saving endangered plants, has halted major efforts to save rare plants and is allowing many of the species he propagated to die of neglect because of government interference and the likelihood of attacks by so-called environmentalists wielding provisions of the Endangered Species Act. Years of success propagating Hawaii's endangered plants--where government efforts had failed--have convinced Robinson that present government efforts to save Hawaiian endangered species are futile and that only by changing governmental policies can Hawaii's endangered species be saved.

Stuffed into the passenger side of plant conservationist Keith Robinson's rusty 1984 Nissan pickup, my knees almost touch my chin as I try to find a comfortable position amid piles of old newspapers, bags of Doritos, and mosquito netting he sometimes sleeps under while guarding his property against marijuana growers. We bump along a dirt track on the west side of the Hawaiian island of Kauai, stopping frequently for Robinson to unlock and relock cattle gates. Gazing off across the valley where hardpan riven with deep ravines stretches like a red desert, he laments the loss of topsoil eroded by cattle overgrazing and the traffic of wild pigs and goats.

We're on our way into his Kauai Wildlife Reserve to see what is often called the world's rarest plant, Kokia cookei. In 2002, Robinson was the first person in more than 25 year's to succeed in propagating this endangered Hawaiian species from seed. The last wild tree died in 1918, and one cultivated tree survived until 1978. The pickup bucks and lurches over boulders that have tumbled down from cliffs above. Suddenly a huge boar trots across in front of us, black hair bristling. Once a nationally-ranked rifle shooter who normally carries a Glock wherever he goes, Robinson wishes hadn't forgotten his rifle at home. Lush sugar cane fields merge into forests of invasive introduced guava and kukui trees that are choking out native Ohia trees whose skeletal remains punctuate the green canopy. Vegetation has completely obliterated any sign of the former roadway, and the little truck mows down 12-foot grevillea, their red blossoms spattering the windshield with sticky syrup.

Robinson attempts to straddle two boulders with the wheels as I peek out the window at the precipice on my side of the pickup. "No problem," he reassures me, "but if this were a rainy day and the ground was slippery, look out!" The clear calls of cardinals echo nearby as we follow a grassy path along the ditch. Suddenly Robinson jumps out to yank out several invasive Triumfetta semitriloba (also called Sacramento burr), a weed that he had eradicated from his reserve five years ago. Then he walks ahead hacking open a pathway with his cane knife.

Finally he parks the pickup, and we prepare to hike through nearly impenetrable guava saplings. Robinson leads the way and I follow, wriggling through narrow openings in undergrowth so dense it's dark as night. Every once in a while, we emerge into a clearing where the trees are stunted, and we can see broad vistas stretching down to the ocean. Often I have to grab at branches to keep from sliding down the mountainside.

A mile or so in, we reach our destination--Robinson's Kokia cookei plantings. The mature trees with maple-like leaves are twenty feet tall reaching for sunlight. It has been more than two years since he checked on them, and he's amazed they are still alive. He insists they're dying, though, pointing to evidence of rats' gnawing and leaves curled and yellowing. A single red blossom is a bright beacon at the top, but most of the seed capsules on the rundown trees are small and empty. Several wire cages protect Kokia cookei seedlings, but these stand no chance of surviving either, according to Robinson. Despite the fact that the Kokia trees aren't faring well, they represent an ecological success story. Repeated attempts by environmental groups, private botanical gardens, and governmental agencies to propagate this plant failed. No one had managed to produce seeds of this plant in nearly 30 years. Robinson's Kokias, however, flowered prolifically producing hundreds of viable seeds, which he germinated and used to begin growing another crop of the rare species.

Robinson's friends refer to him as Curmudgeous robinsonii, and the title fits him to a "T." Keith Robinson is a maverick--brusque, opinionated, outspoken, reclusive, almost eccentric. At the same time, he's gallant, generous, intelligent, and articulate, and he knows more than most about the native plants of Hawaii, a state called the endangered species capital of the U.S., containing one-third of the listed plants--273 species.

Wearing patched blue jeans and a denim shirt and his trademark green construction helmet, Robinson is without a doubt the most unforgettable character I've ever met. He was born and raised in the Makaweli District on the west side of Kauai, a fifth-generation descendant of Eliza Sinclair, who sold the family's New Zealand sheep ranch in the early 1860s and sailed to Hawaii in search of new frontiers. She purchased the largest part of the 72-square mile island of Niihau, now owned by Keith and his brother Bruce, from King Kamehameha IV for $10,000 for a ranching operation, and later expanded to Kauai.

Maverick in the Making

Robinson attended a private high school in California and earned a degree in crop production and range management from the University of California, Davis. After college, he served a stint in the Army and returned home to enter the family business. The ruling family faction assigned him the smallest and poorest department of their cattle enterprise, and he worked 18 hours a day, six days a week for seven years in a vain attempt to make it profitable.

During those years, Robinson disagreed with family members on everything from land management practices to security issues to moral and ethical values. He felt hassled and humiliated by his own relatives and finally resigned from the company. Always intrigued with the plight of Hawaii's native plants, he decided to try his hand at rescuing some of them, and the rest is history. John Fay, a botanist with the Endangered Species Office in Washington, D.C., who toured Robinson's reserve at the end of the 1980s, said of him: "Robinson was the only steward of 16 or 17 endangered species. But for him, they might not exist. I can't think of another instance anywhere of anybody who can lay claim to that record."

Kokia cookei isn't Robinson's only endangered species success story. When Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu failed to get clones of the last remaining wild Cyanea pinnatifida to flower, they gave some of the plants to Robinson. For much of 1997, he hand-carried water and fertilizer over treacherous mountain paths to a place on his reserve he thought would be suitable for the plant's success. Under his care, three plants eventually flowered and produced some 2,000-3,000 seeds. He also grew several gene pools of Kokia kauaiensis, Hibiscadelphus distans, Hibiscus brackenridgei, Abutilon menziesii, Gardenia brighami, and Caesalpinia species--to mention just a few of the more than 120 rare and endangered species that were thriving in his reserve at the time he abandoned it in 2002 to protest governmental interference.

Robinson got his first taste of the intrusive nature of governmental agencies and environmentalists when he saw a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) recovery plan in 1994 or 1995 that included the phrase "to secure and manage Keith Robinson's land" for Caesalpinia kauaiensis, an extremely rare species of small tree. Shortly afterward, the Caesalpinia was found dead on his reserve. Robinson's rocky relationship with the FWS deteriorated further in 2000 when the agency proposed listing more than a thousand acres on Robinson land on Kauai and Niihau as "critical habitat." Critical habitat is defined as the area an endangered plant or animal needs to survive and multiply until it is no longer endangered.

Robinson had strong reason to distrust critical habitat listings. Sometime in the late 1990s, Robinson read about the FWS's takeover of a portion of the McCandless Ranch on the Big Island of Hawaii a few years earlier to "secure and manage" the endangered alala, or Hawaiian crow. The government and environmental groups sued the McCandless Ranch heirs and seized 5,000 acres of their land. Subsequently, almost all the crows died.

Fearing that the government would seize his property since he possessed the world's only seeding trees of the internationally famous Kokia cookei, Robinson reluctantly abandoned his reserve. As a result, about a thousand individual rare plants died of neglect, and critically important gene pools of more than a dozen rare plant species were lost forever. "In terms of the number of endangered species involved and the percentage of vital genetic diversity of each that was lost, this event may well rank as America's worst single endangered species disaster. It is no exaggeration to say that a significant chunk of Hawaii's botanical heritage was wiped out by this event," says Robinson. "My best estimate about the long-term consequences of this situation is that 5-10 Hawaiian species will go extinct, and another 10-20 species, like Cyanea superba, may go through 'genetic bottlenecks' that will further weaken their already-exiguous viability. This disaster was caused not by the military or by private developers but by corrupt environmental groups and power-mad bureaucrats."

Plant Lifeboats

"I don't like turning endangered species into a battleground," he continues, "but these people are using this issue to damage us, imposing critical habitat listings and trying to dictate how we shall and shall not use our land. This business of drawing critical habitat lines on maps is worse than useless.... It is extremely expensive and wastes money which should be used to grow and protect the plants in special 'lifeboat' reserves, where they can be very intensively cultivated and carefully managed."

For years Robinson did just that in his own reserve with a fraction of the money spent by the government or environmental agencies. He estimates that it took two years and cost him as little as $250, excluding his fuel and labor, to grow the Kokia cookei plants, and less than $200 to succeed in getting Cyanea pinnatifida to flower and seed. In comparison, the government had spent nearly 30 years and thousands of dollars experimenting with expensive tissue culture techniques and other procedures to propagate the plants, without any success.

"I've spent eighteen years and more than $250,000 doing this work," says Robinson, "and I estimate it would cost the government or environmental groups $10-20 million to create a comparable reserve. I've done all phases of it myself--scouting, seed collecting, seed germination, planting, transplanting, watering, growing, fencing, fertilizing, and insecticide spraying. In most environmental groups or botanical gardens, the work is highly compartmentalized. You get your plant scouts, your seed collectors, your nurserymen, and people on the grounds. They all have different duties, and their duties never change, so none of them has a broad overview of what's going on. They don't know what specific problems there are at various stages where you're trying to produce the plants."

According to Robinson, there are many other drawbacks thrown in the mix when government tries to preserve endangered species--such as growing the rare plants on public lands. By their very nature, public lands must be open and available to the public for a variety of purposes. Large numbers of campers, hunters, and hikers use public lands, and campers often start forest fires, litter, and vandalize. Hunters and hikers and others spread the seeds of aggressive non-native plants carried on their clothing or boots. Also, marijuana growers cut down native forests to plant their own crops and uncontrolled animal populations devour the unprotected plants. Private landowners can exclude campers, hikers, marijuana growers, and hunters; and they can eradicate animal pests.

An endangered plant called Sesbania tomentosa--a woody member of the pea family with jade green leaves and orange flowers that grows on the sand dunes of Polihale State Park on Kauai--provides an example of the devastation that heavy traffic on public lands causes rare species. For years a colony of Sesbania thrived there flowering and seeding. In recent years, though, heavy use of the dunes by all-terrain vehicles has eradicated all but a few struggling plants, and soon the colony will disappear.

In Robinson's opinion government propagation of endangered plants is also inhibited by a government work force that is highly paid, heavily unionized, and often slow and inefficient. "There's inertia in governmental operations," he says. "If a crisis occurs with an endangered species on government land, the government often can't just step in and fix the problem. Instead, there are usually proposals, official permits, public hearings, and monetary appropriations that can take months or years. Plants can't wait for months or years, and they just die."

Ecologic Lessons

Over the years, Robinson has observed dozens of cases where endangered species were lost on government lands. Once a magnificent stand of rare Wilkesia hobdyi, a small cliff-dwelling plant closely related to the famous Maul silversword, grew on the ridge above Polihale public beach park, and it survived because hunters kept the predatory goats under control there. The state government, fearing hunters' stray bullets might hit someone on the beach, barricaded the roads so hunters could no longer access the area, and the goats promptly are all the plants.

There was a single Trematalobelia, an 8-15 foot tall forest plant that looks somewhat like a red-flowered yucca, growing in a colony in Kokee State Park some time ago. It represented the entire reproductive effort for the colony for that year. A hiker broke the blossom off and carried it 50 feet up the trail before he dropped it, thus eliminating any chance of seeds from that colony that season.

Botanists once discovered a colony of Schiedea membranacea, a short, broad-leafed Hawaiian member of the carnation family, at the junction of the Mahanaloa and Kuia valleys. By the time they finished studying it, the colony was a quarter of its original size due to the disturbance. That colony has since vanished completely.

He remembers a project on the Na Pali coast where the FWS mandated that the state fence several small enclosures to save forest that still had large numbers of native trees. However, they never maintained the fences, and so when boulders came down and goats kept pushing and pigs kept digging, the fences eventually got breached and inside the enclosure was just as barren as outside. "That's typical of the environmentalists," says Robinson. "They always come out with these grandiose schemes. and the new newspapers give it a big play and it sounds great. Then alter a few months or a year, they run into some reality, and the project quietly falls by the wayside."

Robinson believes governmental agencies, botanical gardens, and environmental organizations are corrupted by their obsession with money and power. "Federal government money comes with all kinds of strings attached," he says. "In order to get it, you have to be politically correct, and you have to do and say certain things even though those things are complete lies. Here in Hawaii an entire endangered species industry has been built up based on those lies. The Hawaii environmental establishment's near total loss of integrity was caused by the Endangered Species Act (ESA.) Hawaii's environmentalists found that, if they could get huge areas of land officially designated as critical habitat, they would have a legal excuse to intervene in those areas.

"The ESA also provided a tremendous financial incentive for the filing of lawsuits, and anyone who filed a lawsuit under the ESA was presumed to be acting in the public interest. Therefore the 'public,' i.e. the federal government, was legally required to pay the legal fees of people who won their cases. This created a financial bonanza for lawyers. In Hawaii, the antics of environmentalists are becoming the primary cause of extinction of species as money wasted on critical habitat listing will not be available to grow the plants in reserves where they have some chance of surviving."

In abandoning his work with Hawaii's endangered species, Robinson says he is making a stand for traditional American rights. "If I had not been attacked [with critical habitat listings], I would probably still be working in my reserve," he says, "and some 800,2,000 extremely important plants containing the last genetically diverse material from dozens of Hawaii's rarest and most famous endangered plant species would not have died. But my primary concern throughout my life has been human freedom. I was raised to believe the Ten Commandments and the Bill of Rights were the most important things in the whole world. In other words, endangered species come in a distant third. If, after everything else is taken care of, I have some money left over, I'm going to do some public-spirited work. But I'm not going to sacrifice my constitutional rights for a bunch of biologically incompetent plants that can't survive naturally in the wild anyway."

"If private enterprise isn't severely restricted by government regulations, it will always be more efficient and hence cheaper," he says, mentioning Amtrak, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Hawaii's Department of Transportation as legendary examples of inefficiently managed governmental agencies and operations. "That's a general rule, but I think it can apply in many other kinds of situations other than my environmental work. American agriculture, before it got so regulated, used to be the most efficient in the world. The same holds true for manufacturing in this country."

Mike Buck, administrator of Hawaii's Division of Forestry, wishes there were more private landowners like Robinson. "While I may not always agree with his extreme rhetoric," Buck says, "the bottom line for me is that the plants are better off with Keith Robinson being here. I know in my heart he will always do what's best for the plants because he loves them. That's part of who he is." How sad for us all, then, that such a dedicated plantsman felt forced to give up his life's work.

Asked what one thing he'd like to be remembered for, Robinson says he would like to leave a legacy of hope for future generations, a record that one man working alone was able to do things that multimillion dollar government agencies and environmental bureaucracies were not able to do. "We don't have to give up our freedoms or let them dictate to us," he says. "We private citizens can do a better job if we put our minds to it."

Margaret A. Haapoja is a Minnesota freelance writer specializes in horicultural topics.
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Title Annotation:ENVIRONMENT
Author:Haapoja, Margaret A.
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1U9HI
Date:Aug 22, 2005
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