National Park on St. John is Open but Faces Challenges

Two weeks ago, if you went by yourself to Trunk Bay in the Virgin Islands National Park in the late afternoon, you were likely to be the only human being on the beach.

This past Friday, as the sun lowered and a rainbow rose over the hills, at least two dozen people could be seen snorkeling, playing in the sand, or just sitting in the water with a cool drink.

There’s still no running potable water at Trunk Bay.  Until the parts come which will allow park maintenance staff to repair the storm-damaged water pumps, visitors must be content with using a Port-a-Potty and bringing their own refreshments.  But the snorkel rental concession is open, and colorful fish still glide among the soft corals on the western side of Trunk Cay that remains remarkably undamaged despite two violent hurricanes in September.

All trails, roads and beaches within the park are now open, thanks to the efforts of Virgin Islands National Park (VINP) staff and 445 people on loan from the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and Department of Fish and Wildlife who were deployed to St. John.

The Danish Warehouse at Cinnamon Bay was destroyed. Photo from October 2017.

Amenities, however, are limited. At Cinnamon Bay Campground, no camping is permitted.  The restaurant and stores are still closed, and although the waste water system is working, the potable water plant is not.  The museum housed in the Danish Warehouse, thought to be the oldest building on the island, was completely destroyed.  The artifacts had been removed prior to the storm.

VINP Acting Superintendent Darrell Echols said he didn’t know when the campground would be accepting reservations.  Redwood Parks, the company that took over the management of the campground in the fall of 2016, intends to re-open. “I suspect it will be in the spring,” said Echols. Visitors are still allowed to use the beach, and Port-a-Potties are available.

Caneel Bay Resort, the luxury hotel that was established when the park was founded in 1956, received significant damage from Hurricane Irma.  Access to the property from the North Shore Road is not permitted, but the beach at Honeymoon Bay is open to the public by way of the Lind Point Trail and by boat, and V.I. Ecotours, the concession there, offers running water, cool drinks, and water sports equipment for rental.

Echols said the owners of Caneel Bay Resort do intend to re-open the hotel “when they can offer the level of service similar to what they provided, according to their facilities manager on site.”

Echols said the Incident Management teams that rotated through the park to clear roads, remove debris, and document the damage to park facilities moved out of the park’s Visitor Center during the third week of December after preparing an extensive list of repairs.

His major concerns now are finding housing and office space for park employees, and repairing damaged roads and utility systems.

Most of the Biosphere at Lind Point was destroyed, leaving the resource management team within the park without a place to work.   Echols said 13 employees overall have been displaced from their worksites.

“The more challenging thing is housing,” said Echols. “We still have 12 people abroad,” referring to the 12 employees (out of a staff of just over 50) who are temporarily deployed to other NPS sites since the storms.  The park lost six housing units for employees, and although not all of those who are away lived in park housing, Echols said some remedy would have to be found.

North Shore Road after it was cleared in October 2017.

Among those homes destroyed or seriously damaged were the residences of the previous superintendent at Solomon Bay, the chief of interpretation and resource management at Trunk Bay, and the ranger at Lameshure Bay.

As for a timetable for rebuilding and the cost of the repairs, Echols could not venture a guess.  “It’s up to Congress,” he said.  Estimates for recovery and reconstruction costs have been sent to NPS management in Washington, DC, but the VINP is competing with dozens of parks and numerous other government agencies for federal funding.  With three catastrophic hurricanes and multiple wildfires, the competition for the proposed $81 billion in disaster recovery funds will be stiff.

Road repair is also on the VINP’s wish list.  The Northshore Road near “Easter Egg Rock” has been seriously eroded, and the road along Maho Bay is down to one lane in some places.  Echols said the park is considering re-routing the road at Maho Bay further inland. “If we don’t do anything, we could lose the road,” he said.

With so much of the shoreline vegetation destroyed by the storm surge in hurricanes Irma and Maria, Echols is concerned about further beach erosion.  We need to plant vegetation to increase stability,” he said.

As for dealing with the considerable debris from fallen trees, the Park Service’s policy is to rely as much as possible on natural processes.  The VINP is planning to do small-scale chipping of its own remaining debris, but it has declined to accept any chipping or mulching materials from elsewhere because it may be mixed with treated lumber or contain invasive species that could cause further damage to natural resources.

The estimated 65 boats that remain sunk or stranded in National Park waters are also an ongoing concern.  “We started ‘stickering’ the boats in November,” said Echols.  “That gives them 60 days to let us know what they want to do with their vessels.”

Boats stranded in Hurricane Hole. Photo from November 2017.

There are four possible outcomes. Boat owners can use their own insurance to retrieve their vessels; they can use their own resources to salvage their boats; they can relinquish ownership, and the NPS will dispose of the boat; or they can apply for special consideration, and if funding is available, the Park Service will help them refloat their boat.

The Coast Guard has been offering the same options for boats that are sunk in waters or stranded on land that is not federally owned, and they’ve recovered 31 boats on St. John and returned 26 to their owners as of Saturday, December 30. However, federal law prevents the Coast Guard from assisting the Park Service in their efforts.  “The Coast Guard is being paid by FEMA, and the Stafford Act prevents us from using them,” Echols said.

Echols is interested in moving the boats as soon as possible.  “We can’t expect them to be free of toxic fluids.  The longer they sit, the riskier their presence becomes for a variety of reasons.  Aside from hazardous materials, they can lead to erosion or siltation.” Sunken boats may also block out light that corals need to survive, he said.

One effect of the hurricanes on park operations is the cancellation of interpretive programs. Only one person in the Division of Interpretation is currently working within the VINP.  Four other interpreters are displaced, and three other positions remain vacant.  That means the park’s Visitor Center is thinly staffed, but the number of visitors remains low.  “Maybe a dozen people stop by in a typical day,” said Echols.  On days when cruise ships are on St. Thomas, the number of visitors is higher.

As federal cutbacks have eaten into the VINP’s budget, the park has relied more and more on the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park to assist with programming.  Over the past several years, the Friends VINP have taken over the organization of popular hikes, including hikes to Reef Bay and down the L’Esperance trail, as well as operation of the gift shop at the Visitors Center.  “They’re a valuable partner,” said Echols.

Note: The Friends of the V.I. National Park announced that their annual meeting will be held on Sunday, January 21, 2018, at 2 p.m. at Trunk Bay.  The guest speaker will be Collin O’Mara, President of the National Wildlife Federation.

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