FriendsVINP Seeks to Expand Access to Park

Featured content for St. John Tradewinds and Virgin Islands Source.

Joe Kessler, president of FriendsVINP.

A press release from the National Park Service dated October 6 states that the Virgin Islands National Park remains closed following the devastating damage of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

But that statement troubles Joe Kessler, president of the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park (FriendsVINP), a non-profit organization founded almost 30 years ago to protect and preserve the resources of the park, promote the responsible enjoyment of the park and educate and inspire adults and children to be stewards of the environment.

“I advised the park they need to re-message the status of the park,” said Kessler.  “Saying ‘It’s closed’ doesn’t work because by law the beaches are open, and you can’t inhibit access.  Facilities might be closed. You can not have lifeguards and bathrooms.  But locals will continue to use the beaches.”

In fact, on Saturday, October 14 – one of those perfect, blue-skied fall days –  nearly a dozen cars were parked at Hawksnest Beach. Despite official warnings to “Swim at your own risk,” several people were seen swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking at Hawksnest, Trunk, and Cinnamon bays.

Kessler sympathizes with the Park Service’s reasons for saying the beaches are closed.  There are liability issues to consider.  The park routinely tests the water quality at park beaches, and until the second week of October, conditions made this impossible.  Park Service officials announced at the FEMA-VITEMA-NGO briefing on Friday, October 13 that some bays had been sampled and results would be available the following week.

Beachfront units are missing at Caneel Bay Resort after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The usual paths to the beaches are blocked in many places, which also raises liability concerns.  To reach the water, people have been bushwhacking their way through fallen trees and debris, or jumping down five-foot sand cliffs where the sea has washed away a ramp.

“I’d like to see the park open up some of the beaches as soon as possible,” said Kessler, “so people can enjoy the park – not tourists, but people who live here and need a respite.  The beaches are a huge part of that.”

Kessler would like to see the park establish benchmarks and announce, for example, that although there may not be a ranger-led hike to Reef Bay for a year, the trail will be open as part of a trail rehabilitation initiative.  “There’s nothing to stop people from going there now except a lot of trees,” he said.

The National Park Service will bring in teams to “literally open the trails up,” said Kessler.  “You might think of it as a ‘rough cut’ with chainsaws.”  FriendsVINP will also begin its own initiative by hiring people with “S5212 ” or “Forest Service Class B Feller Certification” to work with Friends volunteers to try to get the trails in pre-Irma condition.  Kessler expects the rough cut to take a couple of months.

Thanks to the untiring efforts of employees from the National Park Service and other federal agencies, volunteers from NGO’s, and local contractors, the North Shore Road is now open.  Motorists can now drive all the way up King Hill to Centerline Road, thus providing an alternate route to Cruz Bay from Coral Bay.

Cottages at Cinnamon Bay Campground.

But campers will have to wait awhile before any camping facilities open.  Cinnamon Bay Campground was hit hard by the storms. Redwood Parks Company, which took over management of the facility last fall and was looking forward to its first full season when the hurricanes hit, is now recruiting volunteers to help get the campground in shape.

One structure at Cinnamon Bay that can never be replaced is the Danish warehouse which was perched right at the edge of the beach until the storm surge from Irma washed most of it away.  Dating back to the colonial era, the warehouse has most recently served as a museum to hold artifacts ranging from pre-Colombian to modern times.

The good news is that the artifacts have been safely stored away, as they always are, during hurricane season.  Ken Wild, the park’s archaeologist, is in the States now on a temporary assignment but is planning to return, according to Kessler.

In fact, many park employees living in government housing lost their homes in the storm and have been transferred to other parks.  Jayne Schaeffer, who officially became the Virgin Islands National Park deputy superintendent only a couple of months ago, is one of those.  She has now taken an assignment in the States, according to Kessler.

The Danish Warehouse at Cinnamon Bay was severly damaged during Hurricane Irma.

Chief Ranger Rick Gupman is now serving as acting deputy superintendent, said Kessler, but the national parks within the Caribbean are being managed by an Incident Commander, a federal employee who assumes control during an emergency.

On St. John, Travis Dotson took over as division supervisor in mid-October.  He said he was looking forward to partnering with Friends VINP.

As for other FriendsVINP initiatives, Kessler said they’re working to get a newsletter out, but things are still in a “state of flux.”  One thing they have decided is to not attempt a fundraising gala this coming winter.   Kessler is expecting to hold the organization’s annual January meeting, but since the restaurant at Cinnamon Bay is damaged, a new location will have to be found.

Paddle the Park, a stand-up paddleboard event usually held at the first week of November, is also canceled.  The Friends will decide in February whether to hold the popular Beach-to-Beach Power Swim on Memorial Day weekend.

As for the boaters who anchored in Hurricane Hole on the East End of St. John, Kessler says, “My heart goes out to them. For some boaters, it was their home; for some, their livelihood; for some, their entire net worth.  Maybe 90 percent are severely damaged.”

Access to the Annaberg Ruins is still blocked.

Ten years ago, FriendsVINP obtained funding to install mooring chains in some of the mangrove-lined bays in Hurricane Hole; Park Service employees said nearly 120 boats applied for permits to hook onto these chains or secure their boats on nearby moorings during storms.

“In ten years with this mooring system, we’ve never had a major storm, just a few Category 1 hurricanes,” said Kessler.  The eye of Hurricane Irma, with sustained winds of 185 mph and gusts reported over 200 mph, passed right over Hurricane Hole.   “The mooring chains held, as far as we know,” said Kessler, “but the cleats got ripped out of the boats.”

Although some boaters have managed to repair their boats and sail them out of Hurricane Hole, most boats remain sunk or piled in the mangroves.  The Park Service intends to send out notices to boat owners requesting that they remove their vessels within 30 days, according to one official.

Displacement is part of the aftermath of a disaster.  FriendsVINP itself has had to move their offices from Mongoose Junction to the second floor of Office Suites #2 in the Marketplace.  Their new space is accessible from the third level of the shopping center.