Drifting in through a rainbow, the helicopter perches on a precipice where scenes from Jurassic Park were filmed. Clouds sometimes obscure the mountaintops, and red earth contrasts with the dark green of silk oaks and the chartreuse of kukui nut trees. Wearing his trademark green hard hat and patched jeans, Keith Robinson, co-owner of the island of Niihau, Hawaii, scurries to open the chopper door. Here on 10 acres overlooking Kauai's Olokele Canyon, the controversial conservationist nurtures dozens of endangered Hawaiian plants, and tour proceeds support his work.
Widely accepted as one of Hawaii’s leading authorities on Hawaiian flora, the eccentric 69-year-old has devoted 25 years to their preservation in a state called the country’s endangered species capital with more than one-third of the U.S. total. As an outspoken proponent of individual rights, he regales visitors with tales of family history and rants about erosion and invasive species.
Tromping through brush, Keith points to a scrawny plant caged with wire to protect it from wild pigs. It’s one of several species on Niihau now nearly extinct. Guests might see delicate flowers of Niihau cotton or tall Pritchardia aylmer-robinsonii trees, named for his Uncle Aylmer. As they reboard the helicopter, Waianuenue Falls – Hawaiians’ name for rainbows – materializes from the mist across the valley. Perhaps it’s a reminder of this plantsman’s promise to preserve some of Hawaii’s history. 800-326-3356, safarihelicopters.com/kauai-helicopter-tours/refuge-eco-tour.