The seemingly harmless treasure-hunting hobby of leaving letterboxes in various places for others to find and stamp, often called geocaching, has received some negative feedback from the Virgin Islands National Park.
People engaged in geocaching usually leave a waterproof container with a log book in some outdoor location and record the container’s coordinates. These coordinates are posted on a Web site.
Other geocachers then go on line to obtain the coordinates and hunt the cache using a Global Positioning System receiver.
Since it started about six years ago, geocaching has caught on quickly.
“First started in 2000 when an electronic restriction (selective availability) was lifted from GPS satellites, this sport has now spread to over 200 countries with over 332,397 caches placed,” said Walt Ackerman, an avid geocacher.
“Geocaching is a unique combination of outdoor sportsmanship and technology, challenging both mind and body.”
Several geocachers, who have left caches across St. John within the boundaries of the VINP, have been contacted by park officials asking them to remove their caches.
“Up until recently, there were nine such caches hidden within the limits of the VINP on St. John and two other just outside the park,” Ackerman. “These caches attract many visitors to the park from around the globe, and particularly to places that are not often visited.”
Damage To Resources
That seems to be exactly the problem as possible damage to resources is the major concern, according to VINP chief ranger Mark Marshall.
“Directing people to a part of the park that the geocachers may not be familiar with, and could be a culturally-sensitive area, could result in damage to sensitive vegetation,” Marshall said. “We don’t think these geocachers have any malicious intent, but they haven’t talked to the experts and might not know the park that well.”
Geocachers, however, are actually conservationists, according to Ackerman.
“They (geocachers) are men, women and children who have a deep respect for the environment and a lust for adventure,” Ackerman said. “Their motto is ‘cache in, trash out.’ As they walk along the trails in the park, they are constantly picking up trash, straightening signs and repairing storm damage.”
It is illegal to take anything from or leave anything in any National Park throughout the United States, Marshall added.
Illegal To Disturb Resources
“It’s prohibited to disturb resources in the park,” he said. “We have regulations against removing or placing anything in any park. Digging a hole for a cache, moving rocks around or even covering a cache with vegetation — those actions are prohibited.”
But geocachers don’t disturb resources, explained Ackerman.
“Caches are never buried so they require no disturbance of the environment to find,” Ackerman said. “They are usually hidden in a rock wall, within a big stump or fallen tree, or in a hollow or crevice in natural rock formations. They are never placed within ruins or sensitive foliage.”
VINP rangers are looking at various ways to deal with the issue and keep geocachers happy.
“We’re reviewing it right now,” said VINP ranger Dylan Nichols. “On the local park level and on the National Park level, we’re working to draft regulations on the issue. It looks like geocaching might be permitted under our current regulations if they would submit an application and set the cache in an approved area.”
“If someone came to us with a proposal for geocaching, we would like it to be in an area of established visitor use,” said Marshall. “These geocaches would be in an area where they are not creating new impact and we’d like there to be an educational component as well.”
Virtual geocaching is another option VINP officials are considering.
“We’re looking at ways to mark places using virtual geocaches which would have no impact from the object itself,” said Marshall. “Still, just walking into some environmentally-sensitive area could be a problem itself.”
Law Designed for Other Intention
Geocachers believe their activity is harmless, according to Ackerman.
“Recently prohibited by an often ignored law, it (geocaching) has also been generally accepted as a harmless way to get more folks into the park,” said Ackerman. “The law was designed to keep people from leaving tents, lawn chairs, backpacks and other such items, but has now been applied to geocaches.”
The bottom line seems to be that park officials want to regulate activity that occurs within their boundaries.
“It’s an unregulated attraction,” said Marshall. “No doubt there are times when people violate the rules without doing any damage, but we have to regulate as if it’s the worst case scenario.”
The Superintendent of the VINP has the final say on the geocaching issue, explained Ackerman.
“The law states ‘prohibited…leaving property unattended for longer than 24 hours, except in locations where longer time periods have been designated or in accordance with conditions established by the superintendent,’” said Ackerman.
“That means the superintendent has the last word on whether geocaching may continue on St. John or not,” Ackerman continued. “It is his decision, and his alone.”
VINP Acting Superintendent Walter Chavez has not offered his “last word” on the issue yet. In the meantime, the VINP is not the only park dealing with the issue. Geocaches are popping all over the world.
“This is happening at National Parks throughout the U.S.,” Marshall said. “I just came from Yosemite National Park and it was an issue there as well.”
No Caches for Now
While VINP and NPS officials devise regulations regarding geocaching, people should not be placing or hunting any caches on park land, Marshall added.
“We’ve been in contact with several geocachers, both people who are on St. John and others who are vacation cachers.” said Nichols. “We’re not confiscating the caches, but we are collecting them and making notes of whose they are. We’re trying to have them let other cachers know that those boxes aren’t allowed in the park right now.”
Geocachers are still hopeful their activity will be allowed in the park again.
“It would truly be a shame to lose this activity within the park,” said Ackerman. “It is hoped that the Park Service will adopt a format for approving the placement of caches as is used by other state and national parks. Many geocachers are working together to try to persuade the Park Service to reinstate this harmless yet educational sport within the park.”