Sept. 30, 2002 A quiet man who seems to get excited by only one topic has lived in our midst for many years. Eighty-year-old Arthur Watres has been a resident since 1971, and for most of those years he has lived on Water Island.
But just mention any aspect of the environment, and Watres comes alive. He has experience and knowledge of — and opinions about — almost every aspect of the Virgin Islands environment. He engages the discussion with a multitude of historical facts and ideas and body language reactions.
"He has a very good mind and uses it to analyze legislation," said Edith Bornn, recalling how he has long been in the forefront of difficult battles taken on by the League of Women Voters.
Watres in a telephone conversation recalled trips in the early days of his arrival in the Virgin Islands on the vessel Fishin' Fool with Capt. Jimmy Loveland for "fun trips to inaccessible places." Loveland, whom he characterized as a "cultural activist," whet Watres' appetite for joining the effort in the Virgin Islands to preserve open spaces for the public.
Long Bay? He was there when the Save Long Bay Coalition formed and worked tirelessly and thanklessly to see that the area was put under Virgin Islands protection.
V.I. Conservation Society? An early president for several years in the 1980s, he has worked with its projects and interests as the group segued into EAST — the Environmental Association of St. Thomas-St. John, and SEA — the St. Croix Environmental Association.
Cas Cay? He was there with the first clean-up when the Vialet family made the island a preserve.
Magens Bay? He was there when the Magens Bay Coalition succeeded in getting the government and the community to acknowledge a commitment to protecting some of the most environmentally sensitive and important portions of the V.I. landscape.
Water Island? A civic activist, he's been there every step of the way, always mindful of protecting the environment.
A national award for environmental activism
But Watres has another life, too: He spends his summers back where he grew up in Pennsylvania, at the Lake Lacawac Sanctuary. And he has worked tirelessly there, too, preserving the environment to his ideal. His activities have enhanced the environment, turned family property into a sanctuary which is a registered National Natural Landmark and in the National Register of Historic Places, and formed a not-for-profit corporation to provide research and student use of the area.
And for those efforts, he has received the William T. Hornaday Gold Medal for Distinguished Service to Natural Resource Conservation. The medal is bestowed by the Boy Scouts of America, and sparingly so; only two have been awarded nationally in the last 18 months.
At one time the summer estate of a Scranton coal baron, a parcel of land known as Wallenpaupack Manor was purchased by Watres' grandfather in 1909. The elder Watres organized the Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey Power Co. to build a major dam and power plant which was eventually purchased by Pennsylvania Power and Light.
Although his grandfather had not been deeply interested in preserving an undisturbed setting, Watres and his mother in 1966 created a not-for-profit corporation to manage the Lake Lacawac area of the tract and stipulated that it was to be used for educational and scientific purposes.
"A lot of the people I work with now in conservation I knew when they were Boy Scouts," Watres told an audience of Eagle Scouts as reported in an article in the Scranton Times Tribune. "Conservation is central to the Scouting movement."
Lake Lacawac is one of the least-disturbed glacial lakes in the United States. Because the land trust corporation's holdings include essential control of the lake's watershed, it offers a baseline lake and bog system for studying the dynamics of aquatic systems. The stipulated purposes have been carried out since the 1950s by a number of scientific and educational institutions, including Lehigh University and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
Residential and laboratory facilities are available to scientists and naturalists, with housing provided April through November in a restored 1903 lodge.
The Sanctuary conducts a full range of community education programs, according to the Lacawac Sanctuary Web site, ranging from evening forums and nature walks through weeklong Elderhostel programs and university class field trips.
Land for the public and beliefs about its use
Watres has been involved in the Nature Conservancy since before its inception. On a visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, he made the acquaintance of Richard Poe, who was to become the conservancy's first president. The Watres family's Lacawac land trust was affiliated with the conservancy from 1974. But the group began accumulating land in the 1960s and 1970s without also accumulating funds for appropriate land management, Watres said, and so he disengaged from it in 1985.
The concept of land in trust for the preservation of open spaces for the public was alien to affluent Pennsylvania newcomers who were settling there — and still are — to escape the metropolis. They felt free to develop the large tracts they acquired as their personal estates. Watres fought to establish the idea of land for the public and embodied the beliefs about its use established for his family's holdings by affiliating with local public groups such as school systems.
The ideas of land trust and stewardship of the resource are now well supported in Watres' family home, the Lacawac Sanctuary.
He is not so optimistic about the continuing battles in the Virgin Islands. He mentions the Legislature's hearing on a location for a horse racetrack, and the battle to keep the National Guard from building in the mangrove lagoon at Long Point — only later to find an industrial plant on that very site.
Quoting an unnamed person from an encounter somewhere in his environmental battlefields, he said: "The dollar bill is the basic planner."
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