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A onetime rancher wages lonely war to save rare plants
Smithsonian. 27.8 (Nov. 1996): p114+.
Abstract: 

Hawaii has had a great number of new plants and animals introduced to its lands since it has been occupied by humans, but former rancher Keith Robinson is making an effort to nurture plants that occupied a prehuman Hawaii. Robinson's work takes place on his Kauai Wildlife Reserve.

Full Text: 

Chain-sawing in his 100-acre wildlife reserve on the island of Kauai, Keith Robinson drops a foot-thick guava tree in eight seconds. Within minutes, dozens of guavas are brought to their knees, and Hawaii's winter sun shines on a new clearing. Robinson will clear an area of nearly four football fields, some 180,000 square feet of "alien forest": guava, silk oak, monkeypod and Java plum, to name just a few.

A month later, when the rains begin, Robinson will clear the slash with fire and zap recidivist shoots with an herbicide. Where poison can't be used, Robinson fills his ten-gallon backpack sprayer (which he designed) with jet fuel and uses it as a flamethrower to obliterate invaders. (He says his scorched eyebrows always reappear within two weeks.) He'll leave the area fallow for a couple of years while he clears another section, then he'll bring back the native flora-seedling by seedling, plant by plant. After ten years, plants of some 80 native Hawaiian species adorn his Kauai Wildlife Reserve, ranging from purest yellow hibiscus to red-flowered Kokia, rare white gardenias to delicate frilly Hibiscadelphus. Some species are down to their last few individuals in the wild.

Robinson is a botanically xenophobic Robin Hood whose dream is to reestablish an authentic prehuman piece of Hawaii, a place now awash with introduced species of plants and animals. The first person in his ranching family to graduate from an agronomy department, he is a tough, balding man of 55, always dressed in work shirt and jeans.

"I'm just undoing what my illustrious family did when they secured the land here 130 years ago," he says. Dubbed the "Hawaiian family Robinson" in Forbes magazine's 1995 roundup of America's 400 richest people, they sprang from a clan of prosperous Scots. Led by

Keith's great-great-grandmother, the redoubtable Eliza Sinclair, they sailed away from their ranching life in New Zealand aboard their 300-ton bark, the Bessie, in search of new challenges. After looking at Tahiti and America's Northwest Coast, they landed in Honolulu in 1863, in search of real estate. Although the family was offered Waikiki, Ford Island in Pearl Harbor and other properties on Oahu, they opted for the island of Niihau, for which they paid King Kamehameha IV $10,000. Not long after that the family acquired another 34 square miles on neighboring Kauai. Niihau became a cattle and sheep ranch, as did parts of the Kauai holdings. Pineapple and sugar also figured in the Robinson mix.

Robinson's 100-acre reserve on Kauai is itself an island of biodiversity surrounded by land that not only bears the evidence of these family industries but earlier crops, such as taro, raised by the Polynesians. The oldest major Hawaiian island, Kauai rose from the sea between four million and five million years ago. On the southwestern side of the island, a collapse of the volcanic shield created a vast plain sloping down to the sea, the site of Makaweli, the 73,000-acre ranch where Keith Robinson has lived since his birth six months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

As a rancher turned conservationist, Keith Robinson is the closest thing to a black sheep this ranching and farming dynasty could produce. He cheerfully blames his "misspent career in conservation" on his maternal grandfather, Allan Matthew, lawyer, conservationist and early member of the National Wildlife Federation. For decades Robinson hiked, scrambled and climbed"with only air and birds below"the hanging valleys of Kauai and other islands, collecting rare seeds and plants to cultivate before he began the pioneer grunt work it takes to reconvert a foreign forest to a native ecosystem.

Robinson regards himself as a steward of the land and resents what he views as government interference in his work. In 1994 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) published the first draft of its recovery plan for two extremely rare plant species. Robinson was growing both on his land, and interpreted the phrase "secure and manage" as a plan to take his property. He protested to Mollie Beattie, the late director of the USFWS. She assured him the government had no intention of acquiring or managing his reserve.

On the state level, Robinson fully expected to go to prison for violation of the state's new endangered species law. The new law, however, has never been enforced (a large number of citizens would be doing time for possession if it were) and is now being revised.

Perhaps harking back to the days when President Franklin Roosevelt eyed Niihau as a possible site for the United Nations headquarters, the whole of the Robinson clan has long been leery of outside intervention of any kind. Because access to the 75-square-mile island is limited to Robinson-approved visitors, Niihau has been known for decades as "the Forbidden Island." Today Bruce Robinson, Keith's brother, manages the island and is married to a Niihauan. On the island both the

Niihauans and the Robinsons speak soft, lilting Hawaiian. Endemic plants like the palm Pritchardia aylmer-robinsonii grow here, and the tidal ponds are alive with the slithering of moray eels. The beaches abound with rare shells. A small population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals (Smithsonian, December 1991)including rare white ones-thrives here.

The island's present status has quite a history. Keith's uncle Aylmer Robinson, who ran Niihau Ranch for 45 years, died in 1968. His will stipulated that the subsidy he had been paying to maintain the payroll should continue as an assurance that every male resident of the

island would have a job. Aylmer wanted the island to remain "a Hawaiian community that is something distinctive." Keith's father, Lester, maintained the tradition when he inherited the island. And after his death in 1969, the Honolulu Advertiser noted that Lester had impressed on his heirs, Keith and Bruce, the hope that the island remain "as something removed from time."

To the social activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, that smacked of paternalism. John Burns, the governor at the time, expressed concern that the Niihauans lived in a Robinson-imposed feudal state. He proposed that the state government buy the island to build a Hawaiian culture park that would hire Niihauan cowboys as park guards. Few believed the resident Niihauans when they said that they liked things the way they were. Although the state never got the island, in the early 1970s it did condemn some Robinson holdings on Kauai to create a state park.

A Robinson helicopter in the movies

By 1985, the social climate had changed: purists on Kauai wanted Niihau to remain "pristine," and the Robinsons had to lay out some $100,000 in a legal battle to win a heliport license. Bought for use as a medivac and a sightseeing ferry, in a tentative step toward limited touring, the helicopter also earned its keep when it appeared in the Steven Spielberg film Jurassic Park, which featured shots of Robinson land near the reserve.

Despite his distrust of government agencies, Keith Robinson provides the state foresters with cuttings and seeds from his reserve. "We've got all we can handle to manage 90,000 acres of state land with only 22 employees," says Ed Petteys, Kauai district manager of state forestry. "We depend on Keith."

"If he says he'll do something, he'll do it. If he collects a plant or a seed, he doesn't just stick it in his pocket for three weeks. He'll run right down and ship it to me at Lyon in a few hours," says Charles Lamoureux, director of the University of Hawaii's Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu. "I wish I had ten Keith Robinsons on every island," he adds. Robinson and Lamoureux have long been like two collectors swapping baseball cards as they exchange seeds and cuttings of Hawaiian native flora.

"Keith Robinson is the sole guardian of more than a dozen species of the rarest of the rare," says John Fay, a botanist in the Office of Endangered Species of the USFWS. "Keith's reserve is an unparalleled achievement. There isn't anything analogous to it anywhere."

Chance alone determined the ancestral Hawaiian flora as the volcanic islands emerged from the sea. The 250 or so original higher plant species blew, floated or hitched a ride via birds or perhaps insects from the American continents, Australia and the western Pacific. Although these colonizers faced earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes, there were few predators. Consequently, the plants lost defenses such as thorns and the chemical weaponry of unpleasant taste or poisons. In an enormous diversity of habitats, they evolved into 1,800 benign species whose odd beauty strains the tropical biologist's roll call of superlatives.

By the time Europeans arrived, however, the decimation of Hawaiian biota was well under way. The islands' first human residents, the Polynesians, had arrived 14 centuries earlier, bringing pigs, dogs, rats, plants-and a human desire to rearrange things. With fire they transformed large areas into a landscape fit for crops. They created ponds for irrigation and aquaculture. They not only destroyed habitats, they drove bird species-hunted for food and feathers-to extinction.

Europeans commented on the changes wrought by the Polynesians just before they began their own more extensive transformations. Capt. James Cook, who reached the islands in 1778, remarked at the barren and unwooded character of the lowlands. George Vancouver reported that on Kauai the "sides of the hills extending from these [taro] plantations to the commencement of the forest, a space comprehending at least one half of the island, . . . [have] the appearance of having undergone the action of fire."

Cook, "being very desirous of benefitting these poor people," left on Niihau melon, pumpkin and onion seeds, as well as goats, sheep and large European pigs. Vancouver's contribution of cattle to Hawaii in the 1790s meant curtains for many plant species. With no predators to hold them in check, cattle and pig populations flourished, trampling ground cover and browsing on tree seedlings. The years 1815-1921 have been referred to as the "cattle period in Hawaiian forestry."

Isabella Sinclair, Keith Robinson's great-great-aunt and the author and illustrator of the first book of Hawaiian flora, warned of coming disaster. "The Hawaiian flora seems to grow in an easy, careless way," she wrote, "which, though pleasingly artistic, and well adapted to what may be termed the natural state of the islands, will not long survive the invasions of foreign plants and changed conditions. Forest fires, animals and agriculture, have so changed the islands, within the last fifty or sixty years, that one can now travel for miles . . . without finding a single indigenous plant; the ground being wholly taken possession of by weeds, shrubs and grasses, imported from various countries. . . ." The invaders, continued Sinclair, were "spreading as if by magic, and rapidly exterminating much of the native flora."

By 1903 the first forest reserve was established in Hawaii but not primarily for native biota. Rather, planters began to comprehend what the erosion of the watershed would mean for agriculture, especially sugarcane, which must be irrigated. They planted fast-growing exotic trees. Then in the 1950s, the State Division of Forestry bulldozed native koa forests to plant foreign pine trees for a fledgling timber industry. As late as 1969-70 state foresters continued to bulldoze virgin ohia lehua and treefern to plant Norfolk pine, Monterey cypress and eucalyptus.

Today the rate of disappearance of species is so critical in Hawaii that anyone who seeks to stem their departure must go to unusual lengths, and Keith Robinson is no exception. On a typical day he drives to Kauai's Lihue Airport to meet his botanical scouts, Steven Lee Montgomery, after whom dozens of species have been named, and a state trail coordinator, Aaron Lowe. The expedition proceeds 40 miles west to the steep cliffs that flank the remote Kalalau Valley, where 20 newly discovered plant species have been found in the past five years alone. Montgomery and Lowe will descend by rope to gather leaves and twigs from the four specimens of Hibiscadelphus woodii, today one of the rarest plants on the planet.

The botanical treasure was first spotted by Montgomery, along with arborists Ken Wood (for whom the plant is named) and Mark Query, in 1991. Hibiscadelphus, a tree genus, was first discovered in 1911. The little tree is closely related to hibiscus, hence its name: liter-ally, "brother of hibiscus." Unlike those of hibiscus, however, its flowers are not showy; they fail to open their petals completely, instead curling them into curved tubes. Today the Hibiscadelphus species are almost all presumed extinct, because the birds that pollinate them, the curve-billed honey eaters and most of the honeycreepers, have also disappeared.

The quest leads the team to a dense thicket in Kokee State Park in search of a trail leading to the valley rim. Somewhere 500 to 1,000 feet down are the overhanging rocks that hide the Hibiscadelphus. After thrashing through thickets of aliens-guava, fleabane and blackberry-they break into the clear, onto crumbling rock and the top of the valley wall. It takes an hour to descend 500 feet. Then Montgomery and Lowe suit up in serious climbing gear to rappel the last 120 feet to the four little trees. A dragonfly-size helicopter trolls a canyon below. Seamless fog, which usually obscures only the top of nearby Mount Waialeale, has begun to descend. When rain begins in earnest, Keith Robinson erupts. "Nothing is worth this!" he yells. "Not one species. Montgomery, get your worthless hide back up here."

A shout comes from below. The elusive Hibiscadelphus trees have been found! A few leaves and buds are harvested. Montgomery, who is higher up, begins his ascent; Lowe follows. The rope dislodges a large rock, which grazes Lowe's leg as it goes by.

Back at park headquarters, Montgomery and Robinson pore over the prize. Montgomery, an entomologist by trade, hungrily teases insects from the Hibiscadelphus (subsequently, he identifies three probable new species). But Robinson is as fidgety as a new father. "Be careful, Montgomery!" he says. Tomorrow he will drive the collected leaves and buds to the Lihue Airport and send them via the 6:30 a.m. commuter flight to Honolulu and thence to Greg Koob at the University of Hawaii's Lyon Arboretum. Koob will place bud tissue in sterile test tubes with a growing medium that favors the development of shoots.

John Fay is a major exception to Robinson's shunning of government types: they've been friends for 20 years. "We first met in 1975," says Fay, "when I was the staff botanist at the NTBG [National Tropical Botanical Gardenthen the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden]. Robinson was foreman at the Koolau Ranch [one of several "divisions" in the family business]. And he just walked in. Here came a Robinson," Fay continues, "with a bunch of plants he'd collected which he was curious about." They began going on botanizing trips together. Robinson remembers that when Fay gave him his first look at Kokia kauaiensis trees (among the scarcest trees in Hawaii), he fell in love: "I was so overwhelmed by the show that I told him then and there, on the spot, that I'd do my utmost to keep that species going."

Robinson began by planting a few rare species in the uplands of the Koolau Ranch. But more and more he was drawn to his avocation-rescuing Hawaii's plants. He began to plan a reserve.

On the outs with the family business, which had no interest in his project, he needed cash to finance his botanical habit. The first thing he did was to design and supervise the building of a 32-foot fishing boat-the Lehuaand become a commercial fisherman. "A tough way to make a living," comments Fay. "Not only did he fish alone and at night, he was chronically seasick." But he kept at it.

By 1985, he had enough money to lease the site for the reserve from his family. For botanical advice, he recruited Fay, Montgomery and a couple of other specialists. A preliminary survey of the two-level site-an area in a valley and a cooler, wetter location higher uprevealed remnants of native vegetation as well as what Fay calls a "forest of aliens-thickets of strawberry guava, and stands of silk oak so dense that it was difficult to thread one's way between the trunks." Fay adds: "We turned to Keith and said, Are you sure you want to do this?' Quite frankly, we thought it was almost impossible . . . especially for a man working alone."

By early 1987, Fay had changed his mind. "The difference was amazing," he says, "and I began to think if anyone could pull this off, Keith could. There were trails at both levels, and in the lower reserve about ten acres had been cleared and planted with the propagated stock of rare trees and shrubs. What really got me excited was the sight of a young volunteer of an extremely rare Hawaiian plant, Lipochaeta micrantha, a small-flowered member of the sunflower family."

For the next few years, Robinson would fish for two weeks, then resume work on the reserve for the rest of the month-often chopping, sawing, hauling and burning well into the night. In addition to doing the backbreaking work of clearing land, he enclosed much of the 100 acres with an electric fence to discourage cattle. He also "corralled" individual seedlings with 14-gauge welded wire, bolstered by half-inch rebar posts, as the first line of defense against feral pigs. Robinson estimates that he carried two tons of fencing on his back in 55-pound rolls to both levels of the reserve. Each plant of each species had to be matched to suitable soils, elevations and other conditions. Because the area is often short of rainfall, Robinson hauled waterbucket by bucket-from local streams.

In the late 1980s, a major scourge appeared in the form of an enemy that weighs less than an eyelash: the two-spotted leafhopper, an alien from Southeast Asia. Unlike many insects, it didn't wipe out just a couple of species. The leafhopper acquired a taste for lots of them, especially endangered plants such as Robinson's first love, the Kokia kauaiensis. He began the vigilant regime that he continues to this day, spraying every tree every two weeks.

On the way to the reserve, Robinson's dusty brown truck hugs the dirt road climbing through zones of foreign plants: ordered sugarcane fields to mesas of lantana (an introduced shrubby plant that has commandeered many dry Hawaiian habitats) and reddish molasses grass interspersed with introduced cacti that look as out of place as a drugstore cowboy.

Eight gates and an hour later, Robinson parks the truck and packs up the tools of his trade: a stuffed backpack, a chain saw and a cane knife, an M14 (for shooting feral pigs), a roll of fencing wire and a sapling in a plastic bucket. Loaded like a Sherpa, he climbs until he reaches a high meadow, the result of relentless clearing from several years back. Now the new field is dotted with small trees. Recycled plastic bags attached to each one's "paddock" flutter in the breeze. "Cheap scarecrows," says Robinson. "Fools the pigs for a while."

He prepares a place for the little tree, first excavating a symmetrical hole, then adding a dollop of fertilizer. After the tree is planted, he pats the soil gently around its roots. Then the final touch. Robinson hikes half a mile to a stream to fill the plastic bucket with water. After he hauls it back, he uses his hard hat to scoop out doses for this plant and others.

Gesturing to a gulch just above a grove of ohia lehua trees, Robinson says, "That's where I'll plant Hibiscadelphus woodii." For the first time in days he is calm. Three months later, botanical history is made. Greg Koob at the Lyon Arboretum has succeeded in coaxing tiny plants to grow from the spoils of the foray to the crumbling cliffs of Kalalau. There is still hope.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Conover, Adele. "A onetime rancher wages lonely war to save rare plants." Smithsonian, Nov. 1996, p. 114+. Academic OneFile, https%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FA18823723%2FAONE%3Fu%3Dpl7321r%26sid%3DAONE%26xid%3D7ec4f0f1. Accessed 21 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A18823723