Op-Ed: Magens Bay is a Resource that Deserves Protecting

This is how I remember Magens Bay Beach as a boy climbing the coconut trees. These tall coconut trees are no longer there. Most of them were destroyed by hurricanes in the last 30 years. This photo was taken in 1965 by the USDA Soil Conservation Service.
This is how I remember Magens Bay Beach as a boy climbing the coconut trees. These tall  trees are no longer there. Most of them were destroyed by hurricanes in the last 30 years. This photo was taken in 1965 by the USDA Soil Conservation Service.

I read with interest the other day in the V.I. Source where Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources was explaining to a meeting of the League of Women Voters a possible plan to establish a transient mooring system within the Magens Bay Beach ecosystem. He talked about the charter boat industry and its importance to our islands’ economy.

Olasee Davis
Olasee Davis (Submitted photo)

As I continued to read with further interest, the League of Women Voters had a lot of questions and concerns, and rightfully so, regarding putting transient mooring in the Magens Bay Beach environment. I must say, I always find it interesting that the cultural, historical, and natural resources of these islands, whether terrestrial or the marine environment, come in conflict at times with how to develop land or coastal areas without losing the goose that lays the golden egg — which is tourism.

In other words, it is the natural beauty of these islands that attracts people to our shores of what we call paradise. The question is, paradise for whom? Beautiful places like Magens Bay attract hotel developers, the cruise line industry, etc., and politicians and others believe that development can work within fragile environments and still maintain the aesthetic beauty of the area.

Magens Bay is named after a Dane, J.M. Magens, and is located in the Great North Side of St. Thomas, opening to the northwest into the Atlantic Ocean between Tropaco and Picara Points. The bay itself is known as the most beautiful beach in the Virgin Islands and one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I remember as a boy walking up and down hills with my friends from Savan to Magens Bay Beach.

In those days, there were hardly any houses dotting the hillside of Magens Bay Beach. In fact, Peterborg peninsula had no houses where we boys used to fish and have fun as children. We used to hike down from the castle on top of the hill to the southwestern side of Magens Bay Beach, eating guavaberry fruits when in season. Believe me, those were the good old days as children growing up in the Virgin Islands.

A view of Peterborg and Magens Bay from near Drakes Seat. At one time there were no houses on the peninsula, which today is a gated community. (Source photo by Mat Probasco)

According to the National Register of Historic Places, “The Magens Bay District is the most important archaeological zone in the northern Virgin Islands. It is the only area in which both preceramic and later remains have been encountered — in quantity, at any rate — in fairly close juxtaposition …” In the 1930s and ‘40s, federal officials, especially from the Department of the Interior, encouraged local government to establish a Virgin Islands Territorial Park System.

At that time, local leadership and institutions of local government had not been engaged fully in the process of following through with the recommendations of federal officials to set aside historic landscapes as a park for the people of these islands. Believe me, plan after plan has fallen victim to legislative disinterest and the lack of vision about environmental conservation.

As recently as the 1960s, the Department of the Interior as well as the National Park Service mentioned to the local government that Magens Bay was “the most highly scenic park” and recommended a recreation plan for it, suggesting “public ownership of Peterborg peninsula.” Today, the Peterborg peninsula is a gated community. The community is basically locked out from what was once a fishing ground for Virgin Islanders.

In 1993, the late Gov. Alexander A. Farrelly signed into law Areas of Particular Concern (APC). These areas were designated for their significant cultural, historical, natural, and recreational value. Magens Bay is one of the 18 APCs in the Virgin Islands. The law also mentioned establishing a management plan to serve as an overall framework for these cultural, natural, and marine resources.

In 1991, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources found Magens Bay to have “high quality scenery and superior marine terrestrial values.” The document also noted that “sedimentation of the mangrove area could destroy natural drainage systems and greatly reduce the quality of the area for human use as a natural area.” In fact, there is a historic shipwreck in the south side of Magens Bay, a valuable underwater artifact belonging to the people of these islands.

A turtle surfacing in Magens Bay. (Photo courtesy Sara Smollett)

The possibility of establishing moorings within Magens Bay could further change the quality of water over a long period of time. Furthermore, the Green (Chelonia mydas), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), and Leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are known to frequent the waters of Magens Bay.

All three sea turtles are endangered species protected by federal and local laws. The Green and Hawksbill sea turtles probably hang around the waters of Magens Bay, grazing on the seagrass bed. This could be a potential problem for anchoring boats in the area. As of right now, in the waters of the Virgin Islands, endangered sea turtles are being killed by boats in far too high numbers.

And we all know that too often, let us not fool ourselves, that DPNR doesn’t have the personnel nor the enforcement power to patrol the waters of Magens Bay. This is not criticizing my colleagues of DPNR. I am stating a fact. I have seen the impact of our cultural and natural areas being destroyed when we don’t have the manpower to manage our resources. As a people, we all must become mangers of our natural and cultural resources.

“I know the government wants to make money, but we have to look out for the people. I think Magens Bay needs to be a designated sanctuary for the people of the Virgin Islands,” noted former Sen. Ruby Simmonds Esannason, one of the members of the Virgin Islands League of Women Voters. I rest my case!

— Olasee Davis is a bush professor who lectures and writes about the culture, history, ecology and environment of the Virgin Islands when he is not leading hiking tours of the wild places and spaces of St. Croix and beyond.