Restoration in Paradise – No Thanks To Science, Writes Former Isle Researcher

posted in: July 2013 | 0

Robert J. Cabin, Restoring Paradise: Rethinking and Rebuilding Nature in Hawai`i. University of Hawai`i Press, 2013. 236 pages. $24.99 (paper binding only).

For someone who claims to be a scientist, Robert Cabin sure harbors a lot of scorn for his peers. In his previous book, Intelligent Tinkering, Cabin championed a kind of Maoist, “let a hundred flowers bloom” approach to repairing Hawai`i’s broken ecosystems. Designers of projects intended to restore areas of potentially high ecological value, he argued there, need not be bound by any instruction from hidebound Ph.D.s who simply fail to understand the exigencies of resource management in the field.

In his latest book, Cabin continues that same theme – disparaging the research done by scientists (including his own work), while celebrating those who labor in the trenches, pulling weeds, planting native seedlings, installing mile after mile of fenceline across remote and harsh terrain.

At the heart of the book is Cabin’s description of four restoration projects that inspire and excite the conservation community in Hawai`i: Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge and Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, both on the Big Island; the Auwahi dry forest on the south slope of Haleakala, on Maui; and Limahuli Garden, a branch of the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kaua`i.

Time and again, Cabin extracts from those working in the field – the people who are largely responsible for these success stories – statements describing how their work was not helped (and perhaps was even harmed) by the studies and conclusions of botanists, biologists, and others conducting research that was intended to guide resource managers.

To give one example, Cabin cites his research at Limahuli. “In one sense, that research had gone well,” he writes. “Some of what we saw was quite encouraging… However, as was the case in virtually all of my other ‘straightforward experiments,’ the interpretation of this one turned out to be deceptively complex and inconsistent. In a nutshell, we ultimately found that the different native and alien species sometimes responded to the different treatment combinations differently.” (Should anyone really be surprised that the folks of Limahuli found little value in his work, given his own description of it?) One tactful Limahuli staffer, David Bender, told Cabin that while his research “helped us confirm some of our intuitive ideas about how to proceed… We probably could have learned all that with a less formal trial-and-error approach.”

When Cabin asked Bender directly if he “had ever been able to extract any practical value from our more subtle, complex results that could not have been gleaned from a more informal experiment, he shook his head. ‘Not that I can think of.’”

In every case that Cabin describes, the work has been spearheaded by a strong, inspirational leader. Hakalau is inseparably bound in my mind with Jack Jeffrey, as is Auwahi with Art Medeiros. Without Don Reeser’s efforts as superintendent, Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park would probably still be infested with goats. And without Chipper Wichman’s hand at the helm, Limahuli in its present form would hardly be imaginable.

This factor alone may have made these four areas more likely to yield successful outcomes. But I don’t think anyone would argue that to have success in the field, you first must enlist a charismatic leader. Nor, really, does Cabin argue this.

If anything, the point he seems to want to drive home again and again is so democratic as to verge on anarchic. Do whatever works seems to be his motto (but he’s silent as to how we are to know what works). Although he seems to be mindful of the high price of science (field experiments are labor intensive, take years to conclude, have uncertain results), he never acknowledges the risks and costs of the trial-and-error method he appears to advocate.


In some respects, Cabin’s description of what is occurring in Hawai`i seems to be terribly out of date. On the subject of biocontrol, for example, he proclaims it to be “highly contentious” and states flatly that, “To date there have been no unequivocal biological success stories in Hawai`i.”

This is very odd. In the bibliography providing references for the chapter in which that statement is made, Cabin cites an essay, “Biological Control of Lantana, Prickly Pear, and Hamakua Pamakani in Hawai`i,” by Clifton Davis, Ernest Yoshioka, and Dina Kageler, published in the authoritative Alien Plant Invasions in Native Ecosystems of Hawai`i, edited by Charles P. Stone, Clifford W. Smith, and J. Timothy Tunison. The authors describe the headway made against these three invaders thanks to the release of natural enemies. In the case of the prickly pear, several biocontrol agents were introduced, two of which were especially effective: Cactoblastis cactorum, a moth whose larvae burrow into the cactus “paddles,” and Dactylopius opuntiae, a scale insect. Photos accompanying the essay show the same landscape in 1954 and 1979; in the earlier one, there’s prickly pear as far as the eye can see. In the later one, there’s nary a cactus to be seen.

Cabin refers to one of these agents (but not the other) as the “biocontrol poster child” of the proponents of this practice: “Cactoblastis(my all-time favorite scientific name – whoever came up with it must have watched lots of Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner cartoons.)” Apparently Datcylopius is passed over as a “poster child” since it could not afford Cabin the opportunity to showcase his dry wit.

So why is the prickly pear story not a success story? At this point, Cabin’s disparagement of science comes full circle. It cannot be stated with certainty that Cactoblastis suppressed the prickly pear, he says, since “there have been few careful studies of theCactoblastis releases in Hawai`i,” making it “difficult to know how much credit this moth really deserves for the dramatic decline of some of the islands’ formerly vast prickly pear infestations.” Yet those “careful studies” are the very ones that Cabin seems to regard as unnecessary, unhelpful, and a waste of time.

Since publication of Alien Plant Invasions in 1992, the field of biocontrol has grown by leaps and bounds – though one would not know it from reading Cabin. If the Cactoblastis was ever a poster child for biocontrol, surely it has been replaced by Eurytoma erythrinae, the parasitoid wasp that preys on the gall wasp that spread like wildfire through Hawai`i’s wiliwili trees a few years back.

While there may be a few backwater areas where the tired debate continues over biological control measures for the deadly serious pests threatening Hawaiian ecosystem, where opponents still dredge up the mongoose and rosy snail introductions as Exhibits 1 and 2 against further biocontrol releases, the conservation community in Hawai`i, as a whole, has moved on. That Cabin has not is surprising.

Taking On McKibben

All in all, it’s hard to understand where Cabin is going with this book until the last chapter, when the clouds lift. (The last chapter, titled “Nature Is Dead: Long Live Nature,” was first published in American Scientist earlier this year.) Cabin wants to be the Bill McKibben of the restoration ecology movement, and fancies himself well positioned to do this by being the voice of reason, the philosopher, the mediator between the nasty scientists in their ivory towers and the dirt-under-the-nails workers in the field.

He cites McKibben’s 1989 book, The End of Nature, and then proceeds to make of it a straw man (Cabin’s favorite opponent in all his arguments). He takes exception to what he calls “McKibben’s concept of uncontaminated wild nature,” which, Cabin writes, “died long before the advent of contemporary climate change.”

This comes, however, just two pages after Cabin has quoted McKibben making a far more qualified statement about nature: “When I say ‘nature,’ I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it.” That’s about as far from a concept of “uncontaminated wild nature” as you can get.

But lest anyone take his views as a criticism of McKibben, Cabin adds that this is not what he intends. “On the contrary, McKibben is actually one of my heroes, and I am a climate activist myself.”

Cabin worked in Hawai`i just five short years. Yet he has somehow set himself up as an authority on conservation and restoration in the islands, writing a blog for the Huffington Post, several articles in scientific and not-so-scientific journals, and now, two books on the subject. In almost all these writings, however, he takes on a straw man of his own invention: the inflexible, authoritarian scientist who brooks no argument when it comes to setting out how Hawai`i’s native ecosystems should be brought back to health.

I’ll grant that I’m not on the frontlines of ecosystem restoration in Hawai`i, and I will concede that tensions exist at times between those who work mainly in the field and those who labor mainly in the labs. More often than not, however, I see both these camps fiercely united in their desire to devise ways to bring back the dry forests of Maui and Hawai`i, to protect the rainforest habitat of our remaining native bird species, and to ensure that the social, economic, and even moral values of high-functioning native ecosystems remain for generations to come.

I don’t know what Cabin saw in his short time here, but it obviously wasn’t that.

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