“Enemy of the People” might be a little harsh, but that was how they were referring to the Friends of the Park around town last week. Following Joe Kessler’s testimony before an historic House Sub-committee there was a stunned silence, as St. Johnians were asked to cede land to the National Park Service once again. A “swap” it was called. It was a suggested trade of offshore cays and submerged land for part of a parcel of interior, view-less acreage off Centerline Road where we could build a school.
The Sub-committee wanted to hear our views on bill H.R. 53, currently making its way through the House of Representatives. The bill proposes a long-term lease on property suitable for construction of a modern, K-12 educational campus, including athletic facilities, auditorium and public pool. None of the testifiers denied the critical need for such a school here on St. John.
The debate, what little there was of it, was about how the Department of the Interior would go about transferring ownership of the land. Three options were cited: lease, swap or outright gift. The overwhelming consensus of the audience held with the third choice. Kessler pointed out that a 99-year lease would amount to a “de facto” gift. The audience response to that was, “Yeah, so?”
The swap is the sticky one. Who would decide how much submerged land was worth compared to flat woods? What is the value of Congo Key? More importantly, what value does the federal government place on our school kids? Is a happy, successful and educated community a lofty enough goal for the Feds to help create? And, what kind of neighbor are the National Park and its “friends”?
Kessler made the statement that nowhere in the system does the Park lease land for community use, like a school. That may be true. But the Park does have other “friends” that benefit greatly from partnerships. Georgia Pacific, Union Carbide, the railroads, power companies, mining interests, ranchers and the ubiquitous oil industry all lease Federal lands. But, of course, not for something as worthless as the future of our children.