Secrets of the Forbidden Island
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1997:
NIIHAU, Hawaii––Conflict of
interest questions raised by the recent designation
of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback
Whale National Marine Sanctuary may go
well beyond the competing mandates of different
government agencies. The well-connected
heirs of Eliza Sinclair and their designated
agents could potentially make millions
of dollars through the lease or sale of the
island of Niihau to the U.S. Navy for inclusion
in the Pacific Missile Range––after
keeping it out of both the whale sanctuary
and, earlier, the Northwestern Hawaiian
Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which
includes all the islands north of Niihau.
“The Navy is eyeing Niihau as one
of three sites that would launch drone missiles
to be intercepted by Aegis cruisers or
destroyers sitting offshore,” Honolulu S t a r
B u l l e t i n reporter Joan Conrow explained on
June 19. “It wants to build launch sites along
with a 6,000-foot runway on the southern end
of the island,” home of several protected
plant species, where the Navy already keeps
an unmanned radar station.
Because Niihau is not protected
habitat, missiles could be fired with little
regard for disturbing wildlife, literally over
the dead bodies in the ancient burial grounds
of one of the last outposts of native Hawaiian
culture. Military use of National Wildlife
Refuges and National Marine Sanctuaries has
considerable precedent––but keeping military
testing and training outside of protected habitat
ensures that secrets are more easily kept,
since activities can be carried out without impact reports, public
hearings, and outside monitoring.
The so-called Forbidden Island, Niihau is the last of
the Hawaiian Islands still entirely owned by one private entity.
“Niihau has been in the Robinson family since it was bought
from the Hawaiian crown in 1864 by Eliza Sinclair, the greatgreat-great-grandmother
of Bruce and Keith Robinson,”
according to Hawaii Advertiser reporter Jan TenBruggencate.
The Robinsons hold it through the Mark A. Robinson Trust.
Short of water, Niihau has not attracted tourism; an effort to
promote helicopter tours, fought by the Office of Hawaiian
Affairs during the 1980s, cost the trust as much as $150,000 in
legal fees, Keith Robinson told TenBruggencate, and never
paid for itself.
Without major resort development, Niihau is still
used mostly for cattle ranching and charcoal production, as in
the late 19th century––and for canned hunts of various hooved
species promoted by Colorado-based Niihau Safaris. The sales
agent tells callers that the $1,400-per-person price includes one
boar and one ram, skinned and packed for mounting––and
“The helicopter that transports you to Niihau is the same helicopter
that was used in the movie Jurassic Park.”
Robinson complained to TenBruggencate that the
cost of getting permission to build helicopter facilities on the
southern end of Nihau used up funds he could have spent to
fence off endangered plants, whose biggest threat would
appear to be the boar herd.
Niihau is also a defacto cultural preserve.
“The 200 to 250 people who live on Niihau all have
Hawaiian blood,” TenBruggencate said. “They speak
Hawaiian as their first language. Their children are taught in
Hawaiian initially, then learn English as a second language.”
But the Robinson Trust controls the land. Keith
Robinson told TenBruggencate that Niihau “hasn’t made
money for 40 or 50 years. The losses have run as high as half a
million dollars a year, and regularly run up over $100,000 a
year. We’re having a rough time meeting the Niihau payrolls.
We’re not wealthy people,” Robinson complained.
Be that as it may, the Navy’s need to test the new
Aegis anti-missile system could markedly increase the family
wealth, and could explain too why the Robinson Trust has
resisted either returning the supposedly financially draining
property to the native residents or allowing it to become part of
the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge system.
Instead, the Robinsons warned media on June 19 that
as TenBruggencate summarized, they “may sell Niihau if government
regulations and Hawaiian activists make it impractical
to proceed with family plans to allow the Navy to expand its
The Navy itself would appear to be the only probable
buyer. The implied threat was that the native Hawaiian community
might either be evicted first or be overwhelmed, as on
other islands, by an outside influx.
Drawing the line
The Robinson Trust has fought off inclusion of the
waters surrounding Niiahau within the Hawaiian Islands
Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary since 1977––so
successfully that even though those waters were apparently
among the critical habitat designated by California whale
researcher James Hudnall in the initial sanctuary proposal, the
area was excluded from formal consideration in time to avoid
coverage by the official biological survey and inventory.
Page 409 of the Final Environmental Impact
Statement and Management Plan notes, however, that the
Niihau waters are “heavily utilized” by humpback whales.
“Kaula Island, just southwest of Niihau, appears to mark the
western limit of humpback whale distribution in Hawaii,” the
paragraph continues. An accompanying map confirms that
Niihau waters are among those most used by humpbacks,
though not among the major calving areas and separated from
the rest by the lightly used waters surrounding Oahu and Kauai.
Sharing Niihauan waters are endangered Hawaiian
monk seals. Extirpated in the 19th century, the seals re-established
a breeding haulout on Niihau 10 to 15 years ago.
The 1993 Marine Mammal Survey discovered
through aerial photography that 38% of the dolphins in
Hawaiian waters favor the strait between Kauai and Niihau.
Niihau and environs are also used by sea turtles, other marine
mammals, and protected seabirds.
The Robinson Trust has apparently successfully used
separation as the premise for exclusion, even though the relative
remoteness and light human use of the offshore waters
would seem to make the Niihau area an obvious priority candidate
for conservation. Precedent for creating National Wildlife
Refuges with such separate and discreet satellites dates at least
to the first designation of critical habitat under the 1973
Endangered Species Act––the creation of the Julia Hansen
Butler Refuge for the Columbia Whitetailed Deer, in southern
Washington, 45 miles away from the main Willapa National
Wildlife Refuge, of which it is part.
Page 155 of the Final Environmental Impact
Statement and Management Plan considers that broader boundaries
including Niihau would “provide more consistency for
marine users of the State than would a piecemeal boundary,”
excluding Niihau. “Although this boundary alternative more
accurately reflects the current understanding of humpback
whale distribution and habitat use,” the passage continues,
“NOAA, in consultation with the State, determined that from a
management perspective, this boundary fails to recognize the
importance of Department of Defense military use areas and
activities that are essential to national security.”
Niihau is designated on page 152 of the F i n a l
Environmental Impact Statement and Management Plan as one
such area––but, the authors assure, the military will “delay
testing or use of explosives in presence of whales.”
ANIMAL PEOPLE on June 20 attempted to obtain
statements from both Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale
National Marine Sanctuary officials and Mark A. Robinson
Trust board member William Paty, without receiving answers
by deadline. Paty turned out to be en route to Washington
D.C., to lobby to attract military business to Hawaii. Like the
Robinsons, Paty is reportedly descended from one of the families
whose ancestors arrived as missionaries but became quasiconquerors.
His ancestors formed the first mortgage company
in the islands. Paty himself is a member of the Military Affairs
Council of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, and formerly
chaired the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.
In his DLNR capacity, Paty is said to have opposed the inclusion
of Niihau within the humpback sanctuary in a letter to the
sanctuary advisory council dated August 11, 1992. After Paty
left the DLNR, Governor Benjamin Cayetano retained him,
contrary to custom, as state representative on the Western
Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. That kept Paty
in a privileged inside position throughout the finalization of the
Stationed in Hawaii as a USFWS special investigator,
before taking a similar post with Friends of Animals earlier this
year, Carroll Cox raised other conflict-of-interest questions
involving Paty in a May guest column for ANIMAL PEOPLE.
Paty was involved, for instance, in reversing Western Pacific
Fisheries Management Council policy to allow commercial
fishers to take egg-bearing lobsters.
“This is an obvious threat to the lobster population,”
Cox wrote, “and a National Marine Fisheries Service biological
opinion hints at a possible threat to the diet of endangered
monk seals. I don’t know whether Paty had personal conflicts
of interest,” Cox continued, “but it is clear that in public office
he has not emphasized animal and habitat protection. In 1991,
given documentation of the unauthorized take of protected
seabirds and marine mammals, Paty did nothing. Meanwhile,
according to one reliable source, Paty while heading the
Hawaii DLNR personally intervened to prevent the prosecution
of the Western Pacific Whale Foundation, a whale-watching
organization, which had accumulated 19 marine mammal
harassment and permit violations, chiefly for steering dangerously
near to whales. Paty continued his intervention even after
being urged to prosecute in November 1991 by then Maui
County Prosecutor Kurt Sphon.”