A shorelines restoration program that has resulted in the planting of 600 native trees since Hurricane Irma.
A summer camp during which one hundred youngsters learned to swim.
A seminar series offering 123 presentations and events to educate visitors and residents about natural and cultural resources.
The reconstruction of a playground in Cruz Bay.
These are some of the accomplishments celebrated by the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park at their annual meeting held Saturday at Trunk Bay.
Nearly a hundred supporters of the Friends came out to hear the latest news from Virgin Islands National Park Superintendent Nigel Fields and keynote speaker Robert “Bob” Stanton.
Stanton served as the superintendent of the VINP from 1974 to 1978 and later became the first African-American to be named as the director of the National Park Service.
In his speech, Stanton recalled the events of 1963, the year he graduated from college in Texas. “I lived under the insidious doctrine of ‘separate but equal,'” he said. “The words ‘We the people’ did not include Black people. The 424 areas preserved by the Park Service tell the story about how we have evolved as a nation…our moments of glory, of controversy, and of sadness.”
Stanton spoke about the Park Service’s responsibility to connect Americans with their heritage. “The National Park system is a kind of university,” Stanton said, referring to sites like Little Rock Central High School, where civil rights for African Americans were tested, and Manzanar, where Japanese immigrants were incarcerated in WWII.
But Stanton added, “These are not places to wallow in remorse.” Instead, he said the NPS’s 84 million acres are places for Americans and others to visit in order to “respect ourselves and other species.”
With sites from Guam to Alaska, to Maine, and to the Virgin Islands, the 22,000 NPS employees “cannot achieve everything” alone, Stanton said, and so “We rely on organizations like the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park.”
Stanton then took a more personal turn and introduced Ed Roberts, a St. Johnian who became his protege´ and went on to serve in National Parks in California and Alaska.
Later in the meeting, Roberts spoke up to ask about the progress of a land swap that would allow the territory to build a K-12 school in Estate Catherineberg within the boundaries of the VINP.
Nigel Fields responded that “the goal was close.” The National Environmental Policy Act process has been completed, funding is available, the Territory supports the effort, but Congress still has to review the process.
During a question-and-answer period, members of the audience expressed their wishes for a range of improvements, including a parking and shuttle system for the north shore beaches, better interpretive signage, improvements to the road to Lameshur Bay, a medical facility closer to the north shore, a hurricane shelter, and better control of the deer population.
One of the big questions raised involves the future of Caneel Bay Resort, the 150-acre property that is scheduled to come under NPS management in October.
Fields encouraged the audience to voice their views about the two proposals now being considered to manage the property. “We read every single comment,” he said.
When an audience member asked Fields directly how many rangers are now employed at the Virgin Islands National Park, he said it was “a small number but we are now building our ranks.” The Friends of the VINP has agreed to fund six seasonal ranger positions, he added.
Tonia Lovejoy, executive director of the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, said her dad once asked her, “I’m a taxpayer, why do we need your organization?” Lovejoy said there is a nationwide shortage of rangers, particularly in law enforcement, and the park’s staff was doing what they could to fill multiple positions. “We’ll stand by you,” she said.
The meeting began with board chairman Andy Rutnik announcing that board member Audrey Penn will soon take over as chair. Penn, a St. Johnian who now works as the manager of destination services for Cruz Bay Watersports, began her career as an intern with the Friends and later developed the School Kids in the Park (SKIP) Program.
Penn thanked the board and the audience for putting their trust in her. Saying she was a true child of the island, she described how Elaine, her mother, used to walk Hawksnest Beach when she was pregnant with her and would dig a hole in the sand to make space for her belly.
“I hope to serve you well, and I look forward to partying with all of you at the Friends’ Gala,” Penn added, referring to the organization’s major fundraising event, which will be held Feb. 4.