The V.I. National Park and Coral Reef National Monument’s cultural, historical and environmental resources are at risk from the development of in-holdings, according to a recently released assessment of the St. John park by the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).
The 48-page state of the parks assessment highlighted a number of threats to the VINP, topped by the threat of development of about 1,400 acres of privately owned land within or adjacent to the 7,259 acres of land and shoreline which make up the VINP.
"The park is at serious risk from development on properties within the boundaries of the park,” said NPCA Senior Marine Program Coordinator Jason Bennis. “It’s a big program for the VINP.”
“If you imagine a parcel of land potentially being subdivided and being the site of rampant development within the park, you essentially split the park in half,” Bennis said. “Development is incompatible within the park and you get fragmentation. You basically end up with gaping holes in the middle of the park.”
Development of in-holdings would also seriously affect the condition of coral reefs, Bennis explained.
“Another big problem from development is the threat to water quality,” he said. “Often with large scale development that is not done in an ecologically sound manner, you have sediment runoff. All dirt and sediment from loosened soil and construction ends up in the bay and threatens the health of the marine area.”
After interviewing VINP employees, examining resource conditions and reviewing published information, NPCA officials rated the park’s natural and cultural resource conditions.
Out of a possible 100 points, the overall condition of the VINP’s natural resources ranked a “fair” 73. Non-native species, visitor damage and habitat fragmentation were among the major concerns regarding natural resources, according to the report.
The overall condition of the cultural resources fared worse with a ranking of a “poor” 55 due mostly to a shortage of staff and lack of funding, according to the NPCA study.
Both rating problems and the threat of in-holding development, can possibly be addressed in several ways, Bennis explained.
“We’re advocating for Congress to increase appropriations to the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” he said. “The fund has suffered recently and because of the lack of funding, parks are able to go out and purchase the land they need to save their cultural and natural resources.”
NPCA is also working to have the National Park Service increase individual parks’ operating budgets.
“One of NPCA’s largest goals, which we’ve been working on for the past five years or more, is increasing park funding and operational budgets,” said Bennis. “With additional funds, parks can work to decrease their backlog of maintenance, hire extra cultural resource staff which is needed and help the park secure storage space.”
Most of the effort is geared to polish the nation’s parks in preparation for the centennial anniversary of the NPS in 2016.
“Our goal is to do a state of the parks report for every park unit in the NPS which is drafted into our larger centennial goal,” Bennis said. “As we look forward to celebrating the 100th birthday of the NPS in 2016, we want to get the luster back on our national parks. One of the ways to draw attention to the needs of the parks is by doing these assessments.”
As part of the NPS cleanup effort, NPCA officials are pushing for Congress to pass a Centennial Initiative which will highlight the needs of various parks and increase much needed funding, added Bennis.
Other threats to the VINP outlined in the NPCA state of the park report include natural disturbances, non-native animals, poaching of building materials from historic structures and the crumbling condition of the park’s museum storage building.
Despite the numerous problems highlighted in the report, the assessment does not mean that the VINP is doomed, Bennis explained.
“By no means is this a doom and gloom story,” said Bennis. “These are the conditions we’re dealing with and we’re happy to give this baseline. Now it’s important to work on some actions.”
Several actions which could help improve conditions in the VINP include increasing funding and staff, devising a new General Management Plan — which is currently underway — expanding education and outreach programs and maintaining partnerships such as with the Friends of the VINP, according the NPCA report.
Advocating for the parks is part of NPCA’s goal as well.
“We’re a non profit, non-partisan advocacy group,” said Bennis. “Our main mission is to turn these reports into action and advocacy on behalf of the parks. It should be easy for everyone to get on board to protect these parks.”