Salt River Bay Visit Sparks Anger and Hope

March 21, 2005 – If anger motivates change, the Salt River Bay National Park, being called "the most important historic site in the Virgin Islands" may be in for some big changes.
Megan Shoenfelt, executive director of St. Croix Environmental Association, Monday walked around a dirt area used for a turn-around and said, "This site has artifacts a thousand years old and people are driving right on them and look at that." She pointed to an overflowing Dumpster. "It makes you wonder if anyone is in control."
Sen. Louis Hill also spokes with anger, as others on a tour of the park sponsored by Senate President Lorraine Berry arrived at the site by the ocean. "I don't get it. Why can't the governor just make people quit driving here? Surely, he can do that. Build a fence or something," Hill said.
Someone in the gathering crowd asked, "What about the Senators doing something?"
Hill answered, "Senators have no power."
But the tour of the site by nine senators, Delegate Donna Christensen, and officials of ecological and archaeological societies appeared to be all about getting the senators to use their power to do something.
Joel Tutein, V.I. National Park supervisor, led the tour. He went over what the National Park Service had done since it acquired the land in 1992, what it will do in the near future at the park, and what he feels frustrated about.
The Park Service has continued to add land to the initial purchase of 241 acres. The park now encompasses 1,015 acres. In March of this year the Park acquired the home of Dr. Peter Kumpitch and his wife, Joan, and immediately began work to make it a visitor center. (See "Opening of Salt River Visitor Center Celebrated").
The tour started in the not-yet-open center. Tutein and Berry spoke in rooms that are designated to hold museum-like artifacts from the area. Tutein said, "The Park Service has been very busy trying to make this a world-class national park."
Berry said this tour was the result of a personal tour she took two weeks earlier. She said, "I became concerned because we have a great historical site and we are not developing its potential." She said that she had talked to a major person in the cruise industry who said this is just the type of site that would attract more tourism and brand St. Croix as a place to go.
Salt River Bay is important for three reasons, according to Bruce Tilden. Tilden is presently the curator of Fort Frederik, but he was previously V.I. Archaeologist, and he did excavating at the site in the 60s and 70s. The Danes first excavated the site in the 20s.
In an overview to the group, Tilden said the site included a Taino ball court, the southern most one that is known. It was also the place where Columbus landed in 1493, and where the first "clash between Europe and the New World occurred." The park also includes an earthwork fort constructed by the English in 1640. It was occupied for about 10 years before the Spanish drove the English out. The site around this fort was the main settlement on St. Croix for decades.
Even as the crowd of about 50 people, listened to Tilden speak, a sport utility vehicle cut up an improvised road that ran right over the fort site.
Tutein said, according to legislation drawn up during the time the park land was acquired, the National Park Service has no enforcement rights in the park.
He said, "You can put up all the signs you want, but if you don't have enforcement, you have nothing."
Not only are vehicles driving and parking in sensitive areas, but Tutein said that people are cutting mangroves on the park. He called the mangrove system at Salt River Bay "maybe the most important system in the Virgin Islands." He said the cutting might be part of an "illegal commercial activity."
If that wasn't bad enough, the site has now become an area where stolen vehicles are dumped and set on fire. Another concern was about a half dozen derelict vessels that are sunk or half-sunk in the bay. The cost of removing those boats is estimated to be between $7,000 and $13,000.
Christensen said, "I feel real good about today. It is good to see so many of you here showing your concern." She added that the federal government would more likely get involved with helping at the park when it saw a lot of local activity.
Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville said, "We will have to go back and look at what laws we have on the books and then see what we can do to move this process ahead."
Tutein would not give an exact opening date for the Visitor Center. He said the park service would start advertising for two new rangers the beginning of next month. The new rangers would work at Buck Island, in Christiansted and at the new center. He said the center would probably be open full time this coming December in time for the tourist season.
However, he added part-time weekend openings might start occurring as early as this summer.
As the tour was conducted, no mention was made of the dozen campers who were set up in the park on the beach, an annual Easter activity for islanders.
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