Nigel Fields, the new superintendent of the Virgin Islands National Park, sees parks as natural “classrooms” providing communities with opportunities to deepen their understanding of science, history, and culture.
He’s been on the job less than two weeks, and still becoming familiar with the islands and the scope of his mission. But one thing that excites him is the potential of engaging all segments of the community with the park’s resources.
His tendency to embrace the process of “thinking wisely for the long term” is what motivated him to leave the Environmental Protection Agency and join the National Park Service in 2011. That’s when he was invited to participate in a Second Century Commission to create a vision for the National Park Service which was celebrating its centennial in 2016.
“I was captivated by the sweep of Selma, to Manzanar, to the ecological resources we protect,” said Fields. “No other place has the set of features like this. I felt drawn by the vision of a park system that has access to archaeology and cultural resources, of who we’ve been and who we’re becoming. What we do here will shape how people value things one hundred years from now.”
Fields’ willingness to think long-term comes as good news to park advocates who have been frustrated by a lack of leadership at the VINP. The last person to hold a permanent appointment as superintendent retired in January 2017. Since then, several people have held the position of acting superintendent, focusing on immediate problems during their terms of up to six months.
At this time, Fields’ appointment is for a year, but there is a possibility that it could be extended for an additional four years.
“I’m glad he’s here,” said Joe Kessler, president of the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park. “He seems energetic and enthusiastic. I hope he can instill the leadership the park so sorely needs.”
Fields’ appointment comes at a critical time for another reason. His immediate supervisor, Caribbean Parks Superintendent Randolph “Randy” Levasseur, is leaving his position and will become the deputy regional director for the NPS’s Pacific West Region in February.
Fields is coming to the VINP at a challenging moment. Hurricane Irma destroyed much of the housing for park staff, forcing many employees to take temporary assignments off island. In past decades, the VINP employed as many as 80 people, but as of October, the park had fewer than 35, according to Elba Richardson, the park’s concessions management specialist.
Staffing has increased since October, but the park still has openings in law enforcement, maintenance, resource management and interpretation. Fields said filling those positions is one of his top priorities. NPS officials have often stated a preference for hiring locally from a pool of top candidates whenever possible, and to further that end, VINP personnel recently held two community meetings to help Virgin Islanders navigate the federal employment system.
Hiring staff is part of a tricky chain of events in getting the park “unstuck” since the storm, he said.
“We need to get them in, so they can develop the scope of the work and the programs,” Fields said, but providing housing for them is problematic.
Last summer, park officials presented a plan to build staff housing at Lind Point as a relatively quick and cost-effective solution, compared to rebuilding storm-damaged residences which might have historical value. Fields said NPS officials are still weighing the options.
Rebuilding housing is just one of the infrastructure issues Fields and his team need to address. Roads are in need of repair, beaches need to be stabilized, reverse osmosis plants for potable water need upgrades, and sedimentation from runoff must be controlled. The inevitability of another major storm must be considered for all of these projects.
“What we do now will give others guidance,” Fields said.
Then, of course, there are the big issues surrounding the opening of facilities for visitors at Cinnamon, Trunk, and Caneel Bays, the most popular north shore beaches, which respectively were sites of a thriving campground, snack bar, and upscale resort. Although the beaches have been open, most of the facilities have remained closed since Hurricane Irma struck in September 2017.
Fields could not confirm recent published reports that the re-opening of the food concession at Trunk Bay was imminent. Brian Stewart of Redwood Parks, the company that owns the right to manage the concession until 2030, did not return phone calls to the Source. But one business person familiar with operations at Trunk Bay said that a food truck was on the site, and plans were underway to open a gift shop and bar.
In October, Caribbean Parks Superintendent Levasseur said the park was clearing land to put in 10 bare camping sites at Cinnamon Bay, but Fields said this plan is being reconsidered as the Park Service would prefer to see the entire campground operational.
Making the VINP accessible and affordable is a priority, Fields said, and this extends to Caneel Bay as well. The fate of the storm-damaged resort, which was created by VINP founder Laurance Rockefeller in 1956, remains in Congress, he said. VI Delegate Stacey Plaskett proposed a bill to allow the current owners to extend their lease for 60 years beginning in 2023, when the current lease expires, but there has been little public support for this measure. If it is not approved in the 2018 Congressional session, the bill will expire and would need to be re-introduced next year.
In the meantime, the snack bar and water sports rental shop operated by V.I. Ecotours at Honeymoon Beach (on Caneel property) remains open for business. It is accessible by boat and by hiking trails.
Fields said the VINP has no authority over the recently announced low-impact development on privately-owned property along Maho Bay. Fields said he was pleased that owner John Yob “is willing to have a conversation with us. He does not want to do anything harmful to the beauty.”
Finally, Fields said the Park Service is planning improvements for the tot-lot playground next to the visitors center in Cruz Bay. He’s also getting ready to have talks with the Government of the Virgin Islands about the use of the adjacent playing field. That field has been the staging area for BBC, the Missouri-based company that has been working with WAPA to restore the power grid since Hurricane Irma. BBC is set to move its operations to a site at Chocolate Hole by the end of the year.
Although the playing field is owned by the National Park, VINP officials have traditionally worked with the territory to provide access to the community for recreation and public events.
Engaging the community. Promoting volunteerism. Strengthening the staff. Re-designing and rebuilding infrastructure. Fields has a lot of tasks on his to-do list, but he seems ready to tackle the immediate problems while maintaining a vision for the future.
“If we’re speaking to generations going forward, we have to start now,” he said.