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HomeNewsArchivesHOUSE PANEL HEARS ST. CROIX VIEWS ON BUCK ISLAND

HOUSE PANEL HEARS ST. CROIX VIEWS ON BUCK ISLAND

July 23, 2002 – The legality of President Bill Clinton's expansion of the boundaries of the Buck Island Reef National Monument was a major issue in a public hearing Monday before three members of a congressional subcommittee. About 80 residents turned out for the meeting.
The members of Congress heard testimony concerning Buck Island, the Salt River Bay National Historic Park and Ecological Preserve, and the Christiansted National Historic Site at the hearing in the Almeric Christian Federal Building.
Hearings are being conducted around the country to garner a better understanding of local issues and to seek cooperative measures in the management of the properties which fall under federation jurisdiction. Monday's hearing was the second of two for the Virgin Islands; the first took place Saturday on St. John.
The members of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands who traveled to the territory for the hearings were the chair, Rep. George Radanovich (R, Calif.), Delegate Donna M. Christensen and Rep. Betty McCollum (D., Minn.).
Christensen said this is the first time hearings have been held in the territory. She invited representatives of public and private fisheries, conservation and historical organizations to offer testimony on issues relating to the recreational enjoyment of the properties and the economic livelihood of the residents.
Issues for St. Croix residents differed markedly from those of St. John, where access to private property within national park lands and fees being assessed taxi owners who take visitors on tours through the park dominated discussion. Discussion at the St. Croix hearing focused on the federal government's right to extend the Buck Island boundaries into local waters.
Christensen said although the federal Government Accounting Office is expected to rule soon on the issue of who owns the submerged in question, it is important to hear individual concerns pertaining to public properties. She said her goal was to "bring to closure some of the issues we've been wrestling with."
National Park Service Director Fran Mainella said, "It is really an opportunity to understand the issues. It is much better than sitting in Washington and trying to understand the issues. The importance is for all of us to work together. We always need to be talking to each other."
Mainella said the NPS wants to "ensure the development of management plans in an open and inclusive approach. We will be looking for that input as we go farther." She said she hopes the expanded protected area will enhance fish nurseries, regenerate fish stock and ensure that the tourism product remains a mainstay of the V.I. economy.
Panel chair says ownership issue is key
Radanovich, whose congressional district includes the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, said, "The most important point is the legality. Of great importance is who owns the submerged lands."
He said the delegation took a scuba tour of the coral reef expansion area on Sunday and that he believes other agendas were involved in the expansion decision. "I do believe that the monument lines need to be adjusted," he said, "but I can justify going beyond the current boundaries."
Radanovich also said he was uncertain whether a sitting president has the right to change the proclamation of his predecessor. "Our goal is to represent all sides of the issue," he said.
On Jan. 17, 2001, just before leaving office, President Clinton created and expanded a number federally protected areas, including expanding the Buck Island site by more than 18,000 acres and establishing the Coral Reef National Monument off St. John. Last November, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging Clinton's creation of six national monuments in the western United States which argued that the actions were taken without consultation with local citizens.
The V.I. government contends that the submerged lands off both St. Croix and St. John belong to the people of the Virgin Islands, not the federal government, because in 1974, President Gerald Ford transferred the ownership to the people of the Virgin Islands.
Of great concern on St. Croix is the impact of the federal designation's ban on fishing in waters which have become a resource for residents and commercial entities alike.
At Monday's hearing, three panels presented testimony over two hours. Joel Tutein, superintendent of the National Park Service properties on St. Croix, and Mainella sat on the first panel. The second comprised Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett and attorney Maxwell McIntosh, who served for a year on the Salt River Commission. The third was made up of Michelle Pugh, owner of Dive Experience; Robert McCullough, president of the Fisherman's United Cooperative of St. Croix; Virdin Brown, chair of the Caribbean Fisheries Council; and Bill Turner, executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association.
Brown lobbed back and forth with Christensen on the interpretation of the federal Antiquities Act, which dates from 1906, the basis for Clinton's designations. "The whole rationale used is faulty and should not apply," Brown said. "It's mind boggling that over a quarter of a century has passed and the federal government can lay claim to something they don't own."
Superintendent cites environmental objectives
Tutein said he was part of the Coral Reef Task Force that worked on the expansion proposal. The objective, he said, was to protect migratory turtles, whales and other species that spend time in the East End waters.
"My father and brother are here today in this audience," Tutein said. "We have seen the fish species decline … The long-term benefit will outweigh the short-term losses." He said he has seen the decline over his 25-year career with the NPS, 19 of them spent patrolling the shores around the monument. "We cannot continue to let this happen," he said.
Tutein said Long Bank, also known as Scotch Bank, is a very popular fishing area. He said the expansion protects only 5 percent of the total fishing area but can restock the waters for the whole local fishing industry.
Radanovich asked if a failure on the part of the local government was why Tutein felt the National Park Service should be involved in preserving the marine life.
When Tutein replied in the affirmative, Christensen commented, "Any failure would not be for lack of trying" but would be due to "a lack of resources."
Christensen asked Tutein about the status of the Salt River Commission. He said it had a 10-year life and expired last February.
Turner commended Tutein and his staff for their marine preservation and conservation efforts. "The biodiversity that exists now is miraculous; the expansion is vital," he said. Turner said he agrees with Tutein's intent to protect migratory species and sees no harm in expanding the Buck Island monument boundaries.
Maxwell also applauded Tutein's leadership and offered his support of legislation introduced by Christensen at the request of the National Park Service to expand the Salt River preserve boundaries. Her bill recently was passed by the House of Representatives; action is pending on a bill in the Senate.
"Often through our actions and inactions, we damage our historical and cultural features," Maxwell said. He said the local government has failed to utilize federal resources.
In the past, Pugh said, "We had a lot of fish life and beautiful coral reefs." But nowadays, she said, as she takes visitors on tours she observes the smaller size and non-glossy colors of the fish. "The animals aren't very healthy," she said. "We have great loss due to pollution from industries and sewage."
Radanovich told the assembled gathering, "I can see everyone's need to preserve the island. Even with the GAO's decision,
there would be a need for cooperative efforts. That's something that everyone should strive for."
Some issues not addressed
St. Croix environmentalist Olasee Davis, a member of the Coastal Zone Management Marine Park Advisory Committee, was not among those invited to testify. But after the hearing he said, "There are a lot of issues that were not brought up that are important." He said he heard no mention of the pollution issue and he said fisherman have shifted their focus to the waters off northeast portion of the island for a reason.
Since the dredging of Krause Lagoon on the island's south side, silt runoff has damaged the ecosystem, Davis said. "That's the hot spot," he said. "Raw sewage and rum effluent have polluted those waters." And he said an upcoming problem will be the Mon Bijou drainage project to be undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to divert rainfall from Blue Mountain through the gut to the mangroves in the Salt River lagoon.
After the hearing, 89-year-old Ronald Tutein, Joel's Tutein's father, slowly made his way back down more than 30 steps with the assistance of his son Andreas. As he exited the courthouse, he said, "I think they are doing a good job to preserve the fish."
He recalled having once taken a doctor out spearfishing around Buck Island. The blood trail from the fish attracted a tiger shark that followed them to their boat. He said there were a lot of lobster out there at one time.
Andreas Tutein said his father took up fishing at the age of 12. It was his livelihood and it fed his family and educated his children. "They used to fish Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays only," the son said. "That in itself limited how much fish could be caught. Now, everyone does what they want. They fish every day."

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