The V.I. Department of Agriculture bought a parcel of forested land in the northwest corner of St. Croix Friday with the hope that it may someday become part of a Maroon Ridge territorial park, which would celebrate the story of the escaped slaves who built a community there.
The approximately 70-acre parcel is the second piece of land purchased in the area by the DOA this year. A 6.5-acre parcel was purchased on May 4 in the vicinity, though the two pieces of land do not touch. Both are located in the heavily forested area between Creque Dam Road and Scenic Road.
Marilyn Chakroff, the forest stewardship program coordinator for Agriculture, said the purchases were a long time in the making.
The land was purchased using funds from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, which supplies 75 percent of the purchase price for forests they find to have special ecological, recreational or community value.
The Nature Conservancy provided the remaining 25 percent for the recent purchase in the form of a land donation.
The DOA first enrolled in the program in 2001, at which point a study was conducted to identify forests that would qualify. The Maroon Ridge area was deemed top priority for conservation because of the role it played in St. Croix’s history.
“It doesn’t just have ecological value; it also has cultural and historic value,” Chakroff said.
The Coral Bay watershed on St. John was also approved for the program, though no land has been purchased through the program at that location yet.
The DOA has received a total of roughly $3 million from the program through grants in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010, though until now they have had trouble spending the money on land purchases.
Chakroff explained that since they are federal funds, the money comes with strings attached. The most difficult is the stipulation that the DOA can only offer to pay what the land is appraised for, a figure that is often lower than the owner’s asking price.
“That’s really why it’s taken us so long to actually start spending the money,” she said. “We’ve been through the process several times and had the owners say ‘no’ when we got to the final verdict.”
Chakroff said that she plans to continue purchasing land in the area in hopes of one day connecting the parcels into a territorial park, something cultural tourism and local history supporters have long desired. One large hurdle stands in the way of this dream, however: The Virgin Islands does not currently have a territorial park service.
Chakroff is not deterred by this. She is optimistic that such a service will be founded in the not too distant future, spurred on in part by the rising importance of cultural tourism on St. Croix and the possibility of the island being declared a national heritage area.
“I’m willing for Agriculture to be holding onto the property and monitoring it until such time as we do have a park service at which point these (parcels) would become part of that,” she said.
As a stipulation of the purchase, the new DOA land is open to the public. Chakroff says her agency is still debating how they will allow the land to be used, but she believes it will be restricted to low-impact activities, such as hiking, nature tours and bird watching. She doesn’t believe ATV’s or horses will be allowed due to erosion concerns.
For more information, visit: www.vifresh.com/forestry.