Robinson rare plant refuge to open next week

The 25-year-old dream of Keith Robinson’s to fund the preservation of a refuge of rare exotic plants in Makaweli will become a reality next week.

Through an agreement with Robinson, Safari Helicopters will begin transporting visitors to a 10-acre site by Olokele Canyon, where a new refuge is under development.

Visitors will mostly be confined to a helicopter landing pad, but can photograph mountain scenery and will be led through an in-depth presentation by Robinson on the natural and human history of the region and that history’s connection to the Pacific region. Displays also will be used.

The project will be the only one of its kind in the state, Robinson said.

“The concept has never been tried before,” Robinson said. “When tourists return to the helicopter after a visit to the site, they will have a grasp of what they are seeing. They will hopefully have a much deeper appreciation of the history of the Hawaiian Islands and its people.”

Dr. David Lorence, a botanist and director of science at the National Tropical Botanical Gardens on Kaua‘i, said the project is needed.

“Every effort to help preserve native plants can be an important one,” Lorence said. “So many of the plants are threatened, endangered or are facing imminent extinction from a number of factors.”

Lorence said Robinson has worked very hard to preserve a rare tree species of Kokia.

Robinson got the green light last August to move forward with his project from the Kaua‘i County Planning Commission, which approved permits to allow him to develop a botanical garden and a helicopter landing area.

“The dream has taken a quarter of a century, but I finally reached the point where the concept is being tested for the first time,” he said.

As a condition of approval by the commission, Robinson was required to implement soil conservation work within the ten acres.

“I have done that, as we have trapped at least 40 tons of soil in the (past) six to eight months through dams,” he said.

The ongoing installation of fences also has prevented overgrazing and denuding of the land by goats and cattle, Robinson said.

The idea for a refuge showcasing some of Hawai‘i’s rarest plants came to him in 1982 and 1984, Robinson said.

He moved on his impulses to develop a small refuge in Makaweli in 1986, watering, fertilizing and caring for endangered plants by himself until 2002.

Back then, Robinson envisioned a small network of reserves for endangered Hawaiian species and to support them with revenues through commercial helicopter tours.

One of the reserves would have been on Ni‘ihau, which is owned by the Robinson family, for species that grow in ultra-dry conditions, Robinson said.

Anther refuge would have been located in Makaweli for plants associated with dry uplands on the leeward side of Kaua‘i and needing more water for survival, Robinson said.

Robinson said he also envisioned a refuge in Wainiha on Kaua‘i’s North Shore for rare plant species that are “typical for very wet country.”

Robinson had envisioned revenues from visitors would sustain the refuges.

But that plan didn’t come to fruition because it was not economically feasible for a family-owned, two-engine helicopter to make short runs to the refuge, he said.

While the first refuge remains dormant, Robinson said he may revitalize it should the second venture prove successful.

The second venture had its stirrings 18 months ago, when Preston Myers, owner of Safari Helicopters, approached him about a commercial venture, Robinson said.

One thing led to another, and the two came up with the current plan.

“The refuge will open up for tourists pretty quickly now,” Robinson said.

The first visitors will see a smattering of rare plants, and more as the project progresses, Robinson said.

Lorence said Robinson can help protect the plants by keeping a record of his work.

“It is important to keep records of the origin of the plant and to ensure efforts at propagation are successful,” he said. “It is important to keep records so we can learn from our failure and successes as a way to perpetuate the endangered species.”

Robinson said visitors will be confined mostly to an area around the helicopter pad, but will be treated to unique mountain views, and will be led through a historical presentation that predates the arrival of man.

“Visitors will come way from the tour with a deeper understanding, a more broad overview of how the Hawaiian Islands and the aboriginal culture fit into the larger framework of the Pacific area,” Robinson said. “This is going to be more realistic than what other tour helicopter companies offer, and it will be down to Earth.”

The tour will be geared for visitors “who want an in-depth, comprehensive history of Hawai‘i and its people,” Robinson said.

Robinson said he will pass on his interpretive duties to pilots after they have shown him they have an equal grasp of the knowledge he will convey to visitors.

Initially, Safari Helicopters will conduct one to two tours daily, five to six days a week, Robinson said, with more to follow if “the concept proves successful and tourists like it.”

Those interested in the tour can call Safari Helicopters, at 246-0136.

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