July 20, 2002 – Delegate Donna M. Christensen set the tone early on at Saturday's meeting on St. John of a congressional subcommittee on national parks when she referred to the "everyday hassle of living with a national park that takes up so much of the island."
"The park could do a better job of managing its impact on St. John," Christensen said.
Except for National Park Service Director Fran Mainella, who flew down from the mainland, and St. John resident Joe Kessler, president of the Friends of the V.I. National Park, every member of Christensen's small, hand-picked group of presenters had some bone to pick with the park.
Christensen said after the meeting that she hadn't invited any pro-park residents besides Kessler because he could speak to that position.
About a hundred people crowded the Legislature Building in Cruz Bay for the hearing before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands. The subcommittee members present in addition to Christensen were Rep. George Radanovich of California, who chairs the panel, and Rep. Betty McCollom of Minnesota.
St. John's new Coral Reef National Monument was the hottest topic of discussion. The National Park Service and Christensen are waiting for the U.S. General Accounting Office to issue its ruling on whether President Clinton had the legal authority to create the 12,708-acre undersea monument days before leaving office in January of 2001.
The V.I. government contends that the submerged lands in question belong to the territory, not to the national park. V.I. National Park Superintendent John King has said several times that he has been told the federal jurisdiction will be upheld.
However, Radanovich said Saturday, "The GAO is not the final arbitrator of whether it is correct." And Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole, one of the presenters, vowed to take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mainella said the National Park Service is moving toward creating a management plan for the Coral Reef National Monument. King said that money allocated for 2002 to initiate the plan will be rolled over until next year because the GAO decision won't come in time to begin the work in this fiscal year.
Mainella also said the park service plans to include the St. John community in developing the management plan. "The planning for the future management of these monuments will be a model of what we call the four C's — consultation, cooperation, communication, all in the service of conservation," she said.
Finding fault with fees
Plans call for limiting fishing in the Coral Reef National Monument to blue runner, also called hard nose, and bait fish. But St. Thomas fisherman David Berry told the subcommittee that V.I. fishermen have caught more than 60 species of fish in the waters.
One of the monument's purposes is to help depleted fish stocks regenerate. Kessler said the monument area accounts for only 2 percent of the territory's submerged lands. "Virgin Islands resident will reap the long-term benefits," he said.
St. John resident Lorelei Monsanto had harsh word for the park's Commercial Services Plan, implemented last Jan. 1. "The popular opinion is that the Friends manage the national park with their own interests," she charged.
She said that since the Friends organization paid the salary of former acting park planner Jim Owens, the plan represents what the Friends want. In fact, Owens, who is a partner in an environmental planning firm on the mainland, went on sabbatical to work with the park staff as a volunteer planner. When his six-month volunteer stint was up, the Friends paid him a stipend so he could complete the Commercial Services Plan he had been working on.
John Fuller, chair of the Friends board, said after the hearing that the Friends have paid stipends to many volunteers, not just Owens.
Monsanto's objection to the Commercial Services Plan, and that of the St. John Taxi Association, which she represents, is that it requires taxi drivers taking passengers on tours through the park to have yearly permits. The permit fees are $75 for an individual driver and $250 for a taxi association, covering all of its members. The fees are lower than those paid by other businesses, such as day-sail charter boats, that operate in the park. Taxi drivers transporting passengers from point A to point B do not need a permit to operate on park roads.
Cole said if any fee was imposed, it would have to be "minuscule."
Christensen, Monsanto and Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd, also a presenter, objected to the park's implementation several years ago of a $4 fee that provides entry to the beach at Trunk Bay and the Annaberg Plantation ruins. A yearly family pass is $15, for residents and visitors.
Liburd said an advertising campaign says, "Come to the Virgin Islands. All the beaches are free." He did not mention that visitors and residents have for decades paid to enter the most popular beach on St. Thomas, at Magens Bay.
Several people complained about the park's failure to provide road access to privately held land within the park. King responded, as his predecessor, Russ Berry, had done in years past, that no one has approached the park about opening access. "We have written to several landowners asking if they want access and got no response," the superintendent said after the hearing.
Liburd said he wants at least one access road opened through the park to provide way in and out of Coral Bay besides the Centerline and North Shore Roads. While some roads once existed, they are now just paths used by hikers.
In response to a question from McCollom, Liburd said maintaining such roads should be a joint effort between the park and the local government. He spoke of compromise with the park service on other issues, as well
"The national park has been a good addition to the island of St. John," Liburd said. "If not for the national park, we would see all of the beaches with hotels and resorts."
The congressional panel will hold another hearing starting at 10 a.m. Monday in the Federal Building on St. Croix. There, discussion is expected to focus on the 18,000-acre expansion of the Buck Island National Monument that was a part of President Clinton's executive order and that also is being challenged by the V.I. government.
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