Robinson fights U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal for critical habitats

Keith Robinson, who has spent the last 20 years of his life preserving endangered Hawaiian plant species, had intended to share his knowledge and rare seeds with environmental groups in Hawai’i.

But Robinson abruptly changed his mind last year after the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund, which represents conservation groups, and other environmental groups, he claimed, attacked and disparaged his work and theories.

The attacks came during a hearing held in Lihu’e on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal for critical habitat designations for about 100,000 acres on Kaua’i and Ni’ihau to protect 83 endangered plant species.

Now Robinson is fighting back. He is one of the owners of Ni’ihau and 50,000 acres in west Kaua’i, some of which could be affected by the federal plan if adopted.

Robinson says he won’t share his knowledge with anyone on how to preserve one of the world’s rarest plant species: Kokia cookei.

As far as he knows, Robinson said, he is the only person in Hawai’i who can mass produce the plant, using only its root system and seeds. Experts have tried for 30 years, but have failed, he contends.

Today, Robinson says he “officially” has two dozen of the rare seeds. However, the fate of the seeds is unknown.

Without his help, Robinson said, the plant species and several other rare plant species from Hawai’i will pass into oblivion, which would be considered a great loss in the field of botany.

Robinson said he has taken this course to make a strong statement to the federal government and Hawai’i environmental groups about the critical habitat plan and the future of Kokia cookei:

He said a private landowner like himself involved with the conservation of critically-endangered plants in Hawai’i is finally standing up against the “corrupt, egotistical arrogance of environmental groups.”

Robinson labeled Hawai’i’s environmentalists as “eco-Nazis” because he feels they are “totalitarian extremists” who despise traditional American rights and freedoms.

Eco-Nazis, he contends, use environmental issues to promote national socialism.

He said he has done strenuous field work and extensive research that the “eco-Nazis were too lazy and incompetent to do” and that he is one private landowner who is “finally rebelling against the bullying” by environmental groups.

“I am defying them. I am refusing to reveal to them the results of my work on an extremely rare species,” he said.

He said he is “fed up” with environmental groups for disparaging his work , including his latest work with Kokia cookei.

“If the federal government or the environmental groups want the seeds so desperately, the alleged experts can now do the work,” Robinson said. “I am not going to help them, not after the attacks they made on us.”

– If government workers and environmentalists involved with plant conservation are experts, they will now have to prove they can produce the same results.

– Private landowners have quietly done conservation work for years, but have not received thanks. Instead, Hawai’i’s environmental establishment has routinely belittled such work and has been contemptuous of private property rights.

– Robinson said the environmentalists are trying to use federal environmental laws to grab land and power through the critical habitat designation plan.

He insists the plan cannot save the endangered plant species because they are weaker than introduced species and are being overrun by them.

Robinson’s decision not to share his work could slow down recovery efforts statewide.

Other private landowners involved with recovery work may follow suit, fearing the government may take control of their lands in the name of the protection of a rare plant.

Barbara Maxfield, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office on O’ahu, and David Henkin, an attorney with the environmental legal action group EarthJustice, said they were not going to respond to every allegation made by Robinson, and are aware of his concerns and have responded to them in the past.

They also said they don’t have an axe to grind with Robinson and wished, for the sake of the conservation of endangered plants, he would share his knowledge.

But even if Robinson doesn’t, others in Hawai’i are already undertaking recovery work, although his research would contribute to that effort, Maxfield and Henkin said.

The Kokia cookei-the plant at the center of the dispute between Robinson and the federal agency and Hawai’i’s environmental groups-is a small, endemic Moloka’i tree that produces large red or red-orange flowers.

Named after the missionary Cooke Family, the rare plant species has been Hawa’i’s most internationally famous endangered plant, Robinson wrote in a letter to a Washington D.C. based magazine that is expected to produce a story about his project.

Text describing past work with the Kokia cookei shows it is so fragile and biologically incompetent (unable to compete with introduced species in the wild), that within 100 years after the western discovery of Hawai’i the plant species had already almost completely died out, due to an inability to cope with a changing environment, Robinson said.

The last known wild tree died in 1918, but a cultivated tree that produced seeds continued to survive until some time between the 1950s and 1970s, Robinson said.

For the past 40 years, plant species have survived but only after they were grafted onto the roots of Kokia Kauaiensis and Kokia drynarioides, two other sister species that also are rare, Robinson said.

But after being grafted the plants usually became sick and weak, often dying, Robinson said.

In order to grow Kokia cookei from seed, Robinson said he spent several hours a day, between 20 to 30 day at a stretch, intensely cultivating the plant with equipment, including tweezers and matchsticks.

He also spent time keeping predators, like ants, away from the plants.

Fearing the government or environmental groups might find out about his work, he used practices to keep his project a secret.

They included:

– Standing out in the open to be seen near decoy clearings and plantings.

– Driving down mountain roads without lights at night.

– Not using brakes for fear the flash of a brake light would betray his location.

– Not coughing, not making noise, not sneezing and moving slowly and silently.

– Muffling equipment.

– Watching for tracks.

– Heading home if “anything looked faintly unusual.”

Robinson said the project has been hidden from its inception, using methods used by the French Resistance movement against the Nazis in World War II. As a youngster, Robinson said, he had friends who knew of the wartime freedom fighters and their survival tactics.

The work sputtered after Robinson became ill and when his mother, Helen Robinson, passed away last year.

After her burial, Robinson said he returned to the “secret, hectic work out in the bushes.”

Contrary to the groups he calls “eco-Nazis” might say about his secretive ways, he said he conducted his project. Robinson said he is not paranoid, only being careful to ensure the success of his work.

“I am going to say this. I got the results. They (environmentalists or the federal government) didn’t,” Robinson said. “I am the only person in Hawai’i who has produced seeds that are this viable.”

In the absence of what Robinson called “environmental quackery,” the plant species was “in peak condition when the flowering season arrived,” Robinson said in a letter.

The intense work and care paid off, he said, and the plants produced flowers that were “probably the best ever seen in a century.” Later, Robinson had the flowers and plants photographed.

Robinson said he owes a debt of gratitude to the owners of McCandless Ranch on the Big Island, and notified the owners about the success of his work.

Through an Audubon Society lawsuit, the owners of the Big Island ranch were forced to allow federal wildlife officials onto a habitat for the native Hawaiian crow. The government later acquired a large part of the ranch though an agreement reached with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Robinson said that episode motivated him even more so to keep his project under wraps so he could continue his work without interference.

When Robinson undertook the project, he thought he could grow the plants with biological data and information provided by experts. He said he found out otherwise.

“It was voodoo science,” Robinson said. “It is an incredible mishmash of supposition, political correctness, organic farming, wishful thinking, and they rolled this all together.”

Robinson contends environmental groups have used scientific information to systematically mislead the public, and even more so, have “misled themselves.”

Robinson said most of the “environmental establishment’s published biological data about the endangered plant species in Hawai’i was inadequate and inaccurate.”

So he struck out on his own, developing growing techniques not only for the Kokia cookei but for other endangered plants he has been working at other refuges since 1986.

Robinson said the methods in his project go back to 1997, when he got Cyanea pinnatifida to flower and seed, after everyone else failed after trying for 30 years.

Robinson said he has successfully used this procedure many times and is confident that it can be used equally successfully on almost all endangered Hawaiian plant species.

Robinson said he has been successful because he has relied on “common sense instead of voodoo science,” learning from his mistakes and “working far harder than the government and the environmentalists.”

In an interview, Henkin said he objects to Robinson’s use of the term “eco-Nazis” in describing Hawai’i’s environmental groups.

“He should think about the fact that there are people (who are Jewish) throughout this state who fought the Nazis proudly and that millions died at their hands,” Henkin said. “To use that inflammatory language is not helpful.”

Robinson said the eco-Nazis are like the Nazis of World War II in this way: Both trampled on people’s rights.

Henkin also said he attended some meetings on Kaua’i on the critical habitat proposal where he heard testimonies on Robinson’s project that were positive and negative, and that Robinson took the negative comments too seriously.

“I think Keith has gotten thin skin on this issue,” Henkin said.

Henkin also said he probably has not worked in the field as intensively as Robinson, but recovery work is being carried on by experts in Hawai’i.

Henkin also said the real “issue” is that Robinson was successful because he learned from others and he is now not willing to share his results.

“He was able to accomplish this because he is standing on the shoulders of others who worked hard and shared their knowledge with him,” Henkin said. “What offends me and other people concerned with Hawai’i’s endangered plants is that his approach is one of one-upsmanship, rather than to try to help those plants by sharing the knowledge.”

Robinson said while he initially got advice from experts on what to do, it was his techniques he developed on his own that led to the success of his project.

Henkin said Robinson has taken plant preservation to the next level, and that “if he takes it (the knowledge) with him to his grave, how does that help the plants?”

Robinson would be selfish if he didn’t share his knowledge, his plants and seeds, Henkin said.

“It is particularly selfish to have benefited from other people who have shared their knowledge and then (for Robinson) to turn around and say ‘I won’t share the knowledge,'” Henkin said.

Robinson said he has repeatedly kept environmentalists informed about his work over the years, but they “ignored it.”

Over the past 30 years, Robinson contends, Hawai’i’s environmentalist community has become corrupt, driven by the need for power and money. And environmental groups have gained notoriety and credibility only because Hawai’i’s major newspapers have sided with them.

Using federal environmental laws, Hawai’i’s environmentalists are now pushing for the critical habitat designations, Robinson said. A critic of the proposal, Robinson contends that establishment of critical habitats will enable environmental groups to raise money and to have control over land, including private land, designated for plant protection.

If the public can be led to believe that Hawai’i’s endangered plants can still recover and increase in the wilderness, then the environmental groups can falsely claim the critical habitats are needed, Robinson said.

With the zones in place, private property rights will be destroyed, land values will drop and many rare native plants will die, Robinson predicted.

The Fish and Wildlife service was ordered to develop the designations by a federal judge, following a lawsuit brought by EarthJustice for the Conservation Council for Hawai’i.

Maxfield stressed the proposed critical habitat designation doesn’t amount to “condemnation” or seizing of the land.

The designations do not create a preserve or a refuge, but require approval by Fish and Wildlife of any program, project or development using federal funding or requiring federal permits.

The protective zones do not apply to projects or activities on state or private lands where federal government programs are not involved.

Maxfield also said Fish and Wildlife has appropriated large sums of moneys to groups that have been involved with the conservation of endangered plants in Hawai’i, and is proud of their work.

Funds have gone to plant conservation groups, including the Lyon Arboretum, a research unit of the University of Hawai’i on O’ahu, and the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kaua’i, she said.

Fish and Wildlife also has not distributed materials outlining specific ways to grow and preserve endangered plant species, Maxfield said.

Her agency, she said, only hands out literature offering general guidelines on the recovery of plants.

The agency and the U.S. Department of Interior will publish a “final rule” in the next month or two that will determine the number of acres for critical habitat designations and their locations, Maxfield said.

Robinson estimates between 2,000 to 2,500 Hawaiian plant species existed prior to pre-contact.

An average of one species has died every nine months since the arrival of Captain Cook in Hawai’i, he said, but even before Cook’s arrival, the day-to-day existence of Polynesians contributed to the decline in plants.

There exists between 1,600 to 1,800 plant species surviving in Hawai’i today, with about a third of those in “extremely serious danger” of becoming extinct, Robinson said.

Native plants grew in isolation for centuries, eventually losing their biological efficiency, Robinson said.

And their numbers declined when more competitive alien plant species were introduced to Hawai’i, he said.

In explaining at past meetings why the native plants are deficient, Robinson noted:

– They are far less efficient than non-native plants at extracting water and nutrients from the soil.

– The native plants are slower growers than non-native plants

– They lack natural defenses against grazing animals.

– Because they are slow growing and inefficient in taking water and nutrients, the native plants recover far more slowly from grazing than do non-native plants.

– The plants are far more easily killed by fire.

– The plants are far more easily killed by non-native insects and plant diseases than their non-native counterparts.

– The native plants are far more susceptible to rat damage.

– The plants are very easily damaged by man-made chemicals.

– The plants are easily damaged by human activities.

Robinson said the environmentalists and the government would be gravely mistaken if they thought the native plants could thrive in the wild, even in protective zones.

Because Hawai’i’s endangered plants are biologically incompetent, they will “relentlessly decline to extinction in the wild, no matter how many lines are drawn on official maps,” Robinson said.

Robinson contends the critical habitats will only speed up the extinction of the plants. Instead of using government funds to implement the critical habitat plan, money should be diverted to grow endangered plants in small reserves that would be intensely managed and cared for, he said.

It was only through this type of hard work and dedication that the Kokia cookei project was successful, Robinson said.

If the environmentalists continue to “hassle him,” not only will the “Kokia cookei be gone, but half a dozen other extremely rare species may be severely decimated too,” Robinson said.

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net

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