POSTED: 28 July 2005 - 8:00pm HST

The Potential of the Robinson Legacy

Robinson Crusoe on raft by illustrator N. C. Wyeth

by Juan Wilson - 28 July 2005

Next door to me in Hanapepe Valley is a piece of property that is less than half an acre, yet holds what I hope is a solution to many big problems facing Kauai. On the other side of my house is a larger tract, over three acres, that is State Ag Land under the control of the Department of Land & Natural Resources. At one time I would have trusted the DLNR to do what was best for the public and the island but given the recent history of the DLNR being in bed with...

the military (6000 acre 30 year lease to Pacific Missile Range Facility),
the agbiz (protecting GMO operations on state land for Syngen, Dupont etc),
and the developers (trying to privatize Kokee State Park as a gated resort)

... I've lost trust in the state to manage and plan for the use of public lands. Certainly, under Republican governor Linda Lingle the state's protection of public resources have suffered. Her hand picked head of the Board of Land & Natural Resources was Peter Young and he has overseen the BLNR as if it were a land speculation outfit.

So who is the landowner next door that I have pinned hope on to help Kauai?

The Robinson family.

Why? Because, even with their eccentricities and tribulations they have demonstrated a long term commitment to Kauai, Niihau and the Hawaiian people of those islands. Also, they are a private family business that can do whatever they like. If they decide to follow an enlightened path, they can... without the kinds of bureaucratic red tape and bickering of the public sector or the dog-eat-dog, bottom-line, interest-of-the-shareholders corporate crapola.

In other words, they could do the right thing just because they wanted to.

For a moment let's go back to the half acre next door. The owner is listed as:

Alice Robinson 7/12
Aylmer Robinson Estate 1/12
Eleanor Robinson 1/12
Lester Robinson 1/12
Selwyn Robinson 1/12
Sinclair Robinson Estate 1/12

This is fairly common on the individual lots owned by the family. These partial titles by family members makes it difficult to transfer. Often these small lots are leased.

In the case of the lot next door, the lease held by a neighbor family. Once there was a house and taro field on the property next door. It's kind of going back to nature now. Part of the lot is is wooded with mangos and a big monkeypod tree. It is occasionally used as the home of a mare and filly until the filly is old enough to go higher up in Hanapepe Valley on her own. The rest of the lot has a big lemon tree, some guava trees and a ton of haleconia growing over a couple of abandoned cars. There a several lots like this owned by the Robinson family. They are often used by neighbors for a variety of rural needs. Variety and flexibility seem to be the sense I make of it.

In total, the Robinson family controls over 45,000 acres of land on Kauai and Niihau. On Kauai most of the Robinson land is one huge tract bigger than Niihau extending from Waimea to Hanapepe, anf from the shore to the center of the island. Most of that land that isn't too steep has been used for cane, the rest is forest. At one time the family controlled another 4,500 on the north shore, including Kalalau Valley, but sold that property when it needed cash to keep operating.

It has been difficult for the Robinsons to hold onto their land. The failure of the sugar industry in Hawaii, property taxes and other pressures have made them consider even leaving Hawaii entirely.

Robinson Family may sell Niihau, Leave Hawaii

Tax bills mean the family cannot continue to subsidize the
native Hawaiian population on Niihau

by Trish Moore 17 April 1998 in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin

LIHUE -- Helen Robinson and her sons Bruce and Keith are "seriously considering" divesting themselves of more than 45,000 acres of land in Kauai County -- including Niihau -- and starting over on the mainland.

In an interview yesterday, Keith Robinson, 56, co-heir to the lands, said $1.5 million in estate tax bills, which are expected to climb to "tens of millions" in future years, means the family cannot continue to subsidize the population of 180 native Hawaiians who live on Niihau.

He said the family's primarily agricultural and ranching operations have been "systematically destroyed" by heavy taxation and a "government hostile to private business owners."

The family owns 33 percent of Gay & Robinson Sugar Co., a share that will climb to 45 percent once estate matters are settled, Robinson said.

He wouldn't speculate how a move out of the islands might affect the sugar company.

Robinson said he and his brother Bruce have discussed transferring their business interests out of Hawaii for the past 20 years but that Moody's recent downgrading of the state's bond rating is a major signal that the economic situation here will get worse.

"We stand an excellent chance of being plundered and ruined if we remain in Hawaii," he said. "This does not mean we are going to sell Niihau tomorrow. It does not in any way imply that our commitment to the Niihau people has diminished," Robinson said.

He stressed that the family has not solicited or considered offers to purchase the island nor discussed plans with the military.

He did, however, lay out a theoretical scenario of exchanging the island for federal land of equal value in the Pacific Northwest:

"We might wind up with some real nice timberland and some nice house lots. The federal government might wind up with the island of Niihau -- theoretically."

"Theoretically, the Niihau people could qualify as a Native American tribe and have their own reservation, and the monk seals would have protection of the federal government ... (which would) own the island and be able to put their facilities there."

"The Niihau people might wind up nicely protected that way," he said.

The Robinsons say their operations have been 'systematically destroyed' by heavy taxation.of a Navy proposal to build missile launch facilities on the island as part of a plan to upgrade the Pacific Missile Range Facility in west Kauai.

Robinson said potential revenues from the project would not be enough to sustain operations at Niihau Ranch, which has lost money for decades and is a main source of sustenance for residents.

"We're very sad we can't do more. We'd like to do more, but the money has run out, thanks to that bloody Land Use Commission," he said.

Early in the century, the family had set aside 4,500 acres of uplands on Kauai's north shore to sell when cash was needed.
A 1960s land commission rezoned the land to conservation, stripping it of most of its value, Robinson said.

To pay estate and land taxes, the family has closed Niihau Ranch and plans to sell the helicopter used to transport residents for medical emergencies and run small-scale hunting tours.

"The Niihau people are sitting around on welfare, mostly, now," Robinson said.

"They're not in quite as disastrous a situation as other people might be if they were caught without jobs, but it's not going to be easy."

Upland sheep and cattle grazing lands on the island have been destroyed because there's been no money to pay the labor costs to make repairs.

The family's ancestors bought the island in 1864 from Kamehameha V for $10,000 in gold.

Since 1998 the Robinson family has gotten somewhat out of the hole they were in. Unfortunately, part of the reason for that is the result of cutting some deals with the military (PMRF) to utilize Robinson land.

So why am I hopeful?

Because, unlike Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), which is a corporation that is hell bent on suburban development on the island of Kauai (especially between Hanapepe and Poipu), the Robinsons have kept their holdings pretty much as they were during plantation days. Of course, there was bad and good about the plantations, but having a bit of that style of life has kept some good traditions of old Hawaii still alive. Music, language, culture of Hawaiians still live in places like towns like Kaumakani, Makaweli and the Camp villages.

These communities still rely on agriculture. The only operating sugarmill on the island is in Kaumakani. There is a plan to produce ethanol in this mill. It is a step but just an interim step. Bio-diesel would make more sense in the long run.

My suggestion to the Robinsons is to diversify and scale down agricultural operations. Keep the mill and the best land for bio-diesel farming as part of your mix of activities, but subdivide the rest up for a wide variety of farming uses. Make the big tracts operate more like the small ones embodied on the little lot next door.

These uses should include:

Organic vegetable farming
Poultry and egg production

Beef and dairy operations
Horse and goat pastures
Fruit trees, timber production
virgin forest and nature conservation

In other words, those things that will make our island self-sufficient and self-sustaining. Certainly, the future of oil and energy indicates that is what will be needed here in the future. I am hoping that the Robinson family can see the eventual success of avoiding the A&B economic model of endless suburban growth. I'm hoping the Robinsons will envision a future that incorporates their love on our island and its people and a better future for us all.

That would be a wonderful legacy.