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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 12, 2002

Kaua'i landowner stops endangered species work

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

LIHU'E, Kaua'i — Naturalist Keith Robinson says he has abandoned most endangered species work on his private reserves because he fears the government will try to claim his property.

As a result, most of the rare native species have declined and several endangered plants have died, mainly as a result of the lack of direct intervention to irrigate and control insects, rats and aggressive weeds, he said.

Robinson, speaking in response to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to designate nearly 100,000 acres on Kaua'i and Ni'ihau as critical habitat for more than 80 endangered plant species, said neither of his reserves is among the areas proposed for dedication.

However, nearly 700 acres of Robinson family land on Ni'ihau have been proposed as critical habitat for two endangered species, Brighamia insignis or 'olulu and Cyperus trachysanthos or pu'uka'a.

The service is working under an aggressive schedule to identify critical habitat around the state as the result of a federal court order. The Conservation Council for Hawai'i went to court to force the Fish and Wildlife Service into action, arguing that the agency was improperly naming endangered species without establishing critical habitat for them.

Critical habitat is the land on which the species are found and includes other lands that would be needed for them to increase sufficiently that they can be taken off the endangered species list. When federal projects are launched or federal money is spent on critical habitat, agencies must first ensure that projects do not damage the endangered species.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will hold a hearing on its critical habitat proposals tomorrow at the Radisson Kaua'i Beach Resort. An informational meeting will run from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., followed by a 6 to 8 p.m. public hearing.

Karen Blue, executive director of the Conservation Council, said she is disappointed by Robinson's decision. She said critical habitat designation is not aimed at damaging private land interests.

"It's not about him personally. It's about federal dollars and how federal dollars are spent, primarily," she said. "We need to be sure that we do all that we can to protect (endangered species) and ensure that public monies are not spent in a way that harms them."

Robinson said that as the rarest native plants grow increasingly scarce on government land, he fears private landowners are at risk of being targeted.

For some 15 years, he has operated a private reserve at Makaweli on Kaua'i's southwest side. The work is done by himself and volunteers with no government assistance. He launched a second reserve a few years ago on family land in Wainiha Valley on the island's north side.

He distributed thousands of native plant seeds grown on his reserves to individuals, government agencies and tropical gardens.

Robinson said many of Hawai'i's most endangered plants are at risk because they can't compete with alien diseases, insects, animals and other threats.

"The actual reality of this situation is that almost all of Hawai'i's endangered species are biologically incompetent," he said. "There is no way that they can continue to maintain naturally self-sustaining wild populations."

At Makaweli, he said, "as soon as I stopped working, the plants in the reserve went into a swift and catastrophic decline."

While a few individual plans survive, he said most are too weak to produce much seed. Among those suffering severe decline are Abutilon menziesii, Hibiscus brackenridgii, Cyanea pinnatifida, Lipochaeta micrantha and Solanum sandwicensis.

A Moloka'i plant, Kokia cookei, which had been thriving, died within five months.

Robinson said he felt he made a mistake by letting Fish and Wildlife Service officials know about his reserve and what was growing there.

He added that he has abandoned plans to establish a third reserve on Ni'ihau and would do any future endangered species work in secrecy.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included a map that was mistakenly added to the article.