Issue 15.2: April/May 2012

The Canyon and the Curmudgeon

Story by Margaret A. Haapoja   

Photo by Matt Mallams  


Into the wild: Kaua‘i’s privately owned Olokele Canyon has long been kapu—off limits—to outsiders. Now conservationist and co-owner Keith Robinson has opened the remote area to visitors interested in seeing some of Hawai‘i’s rarest plants.

Rainbows form in the mist from the waterfall in the distance. Patches of red soil contrast with the dark green foliage of native lonomea and koa trees. This valley looks primeval, pristine, the sort of place you’d expect to see in Jurassic Park. That’s because Olokele Canyon on Kaua‘i is just that sort of place: a setting for many of the scenes in the film Jurassic Park. Until recently its steward had kept this privately owned area kapu—off-limits—to outsiders.


Keith Robinson’s friends call him Curmudgeous robinsonii because the conservationist who’s worked for thirty years to protect Hawai‘i’s endangered native plants is a maverick: reclusive, eccentric, opinionated. He co-owns the island of Ni‘ihau and 4,500 acres on Kaua‘i with his brother, Bruce, and he frequently tangles with Hawai‘i’s environmental community —the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club—over managing the flora living in this valley, much of which is endemic and endangered.


In 2007 Robinson opened up this remote area of Kaua‘i and collaborated with Safari Helicopters to run eco-tours that would fund his conservation work. Visitors touch down on a landing pad overlooking the canyon where Robinson, who often leads the tours personally, greets his guests wearing his trademark green hard hat and patched jeans. While the tour doesn’t go down into the canyon itself, visitors will see critically endangered plants like the palm Pritchardia aylmer-robinsonii (named for Keith’s uncle); only two are left on its native Ni‘ihau. There are the native Hawaiian cotton, Gossypium tomentosum, and the increasingly rare naupaka shrub Scaevola gaudichaudii, among many others.


Despite the beautiful vista, rare plants aren’t your typical tourist fare. Still, Safari flew to Olokele six hundred times last year. “Most of the people seem to be coming not just to look at scenery, but to soak up knowledge,” Robinson says. “They’re likely to toss you some pretty sharp questions, and you’d better not give them any BS because they’ll smell it out in a minute.” Many of the delicate plants in Olokele require constant management, and Robinson’s pleased that his idea for a niche eco-tour is not only coming to fruition but sustaining the plants he’s trying to save.