Back in the day when St. John was a sleepy little island, Virgin Islands National Park superintendents had twice the staff and only half the number of critical issues to address compared to present times.
For decades, a superintendency in tropical paradise was considered a reward, a spot for veteran administrators to ease their way out of service after long careers.
But times have changed, and this was not the case for Nigel Fields, who came in on the heels of a hurricane and went out with something of a whirlwind last week after serving for 4 ½ years as superintendent of the VINP.
In July, during his last two weeks as superintendent, Fields announced the NPS’s decision to rebuild a resort at Caneel Bay, met with Virgin Islands senators on the eve of a critical land swap vote and promoted a major construction project that will change the park’s ability to protect natural resources.
“I’m trying to get as much done as I can before I go,” he told the Source.
Unlike some previous superintendents, Fields landed on St. John in mid-career, having served with the NPS for eight years and with the Environmental Protection Agency for 15 years prior to that.
Fields arrived on St. John in 2018 to help the park recover from the ravages of hurricanes Irma and Maria, and his challenges never ceased. In addition to overseeing the recovery of the natural resources, Fields supervised the reconstruction of staff housing, the Visitors Center in Cruz Bay, and the busy dock area in the Creek.
He worked with the V.I. Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation to rebuild a community ballfield and the Friends of the National Park to reconstruct a playground on park property.
He supervised the renovation of Cinnamon Bay Campground, which led to a critical archaeological investigation upon the discovery of a pre-Taino village.
Fields dealt with an unstoppable plague of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, advanced a Superfund project to remove contaminants from sites at Caneel Bay and began conversations with local families about tricky land access issues.
His next position, however, is not a walk in the park, either. He’s moving to Washington, D.C., to take over as director of Community Revitalization with the Environmental Protection Agency.
In his new position, Fields said he’ll work on “a cross-section of environmental issues involving air, water and land.” His new job involves “planning for the future and finding a balance between the environment and the economy.” He looks forward to “creative thinking” and “learning a lot” as he addresses the needs of communities that range from tribal lands to urban areas.
On one of his last official days in office last week, Fields spoke about some of the issues he dealt with as well as the broader mission of the National Park Service.
Asked to name a highlight of his tenure, Fields said, “One thing that stands out is being able to build up our staff and learning along with them as we dealt with the infrastructure and the ecology.”
“We think of the ecology as a type of infrastructure,” he continued. “For example, the coral reefs protect our land from storm surge. The mangroves and buttonwood trees we replanted stabilize our shorelines.
“We’ve networked within the National Park Service and worked with partners including the University of the Virgin Islands, Coral World, and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.”
On issues including the land swap and the future of the Caneel Bay property, Fields said he enjoyed the process of broadening community engagement.
At public forums and on online discussions [particularly during the pandemic], the VINP consulted with community groups, including Love City Strong, the St. John Historical Society, St. JanCo, the St. John School of the Arts, the St. John Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the V.I. Professional Charter Association, the Friends of the V.I. National Park, and the Lutheran, Catholic, Moravian and Baptist churches among others.
“We have appreciated their good faith and time – the most valuable asset,” Fields said.
One issue that remains unresolved is the proposal to swap the territory’s Whistling Cay for park property in Estate Catherineberg in order to provide a site to build a K-12 school on St. John. On July 20, the V.I. Legislature decided to postpone the final vote for 45 working days to gather more information.
Fields said some people held the misperception that the NPS was the driving force behind the land swap. “The National Park Service was not aiming to advocate any position,” he said. “We were just trying to support the territory’s request.”
The preliminary agreement for the land swap was laid out three years ago after decades of discussions, Fields added. “It’s been a long time, and [the NPS] has finished our portion. It continues as a conversation within the territory, and we respect that process.”
During the debate over the swap, a number of issues arose regarding land use and the park’s effect on the quality of life for island residents, particularly for ancestral St. Johnians.
It’s important to fully understand the park’s role in the past, Fields said, but “it’s not only about what was but what will be.”
“With goodwill and good faith, there’s always a way to work in sync for alignment between the Park Service and communities,” he continued. “It takes effort. I did what I could to take some topics to a broad range of stakeholders. I hope future managers will work to describe issues and create solutions.”
After 12 years with the Park Service, Fields said, “The NPS reflects our broader American identity, with all the complexities of our broader cultures – from the Pacific Islands to Alaska, to the Caribbean, to farmland and urban areas, from New England to the Gulf South – all are represented within the National Park system.”
“The miracle,” he said, “is that we bump up against the edges and still move forward in spite of what may seem to be division.”