Nov. 18, 2002 The General Accounting Office has concluded that the Buck Island Reef National Monument north of St. Croix, and the V.I. Coral Reef National Monument north and south of St. John, are federally owned lands.
Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen released Monday the long-awaited opinion from the GAO concerning the ownership of the territory's land monuments.
During his last days of office in January of 2001, President Bill Clinton made two proclamations under the Antiquities Act, one enlarging the existing Buck Island Monument, the other creating the V.I. Coral Reef Monument off St. John. President John F. Kennedy originally created the Buck Island Monument in 1961.
The Antiquities Act gives the president authority to declare lands owned by the U.S. government as national monuments.
The federal government will manage the monuments, which consist of 30,000 acres of submerged land.
At the center of the debate, however, is the Territorial Submerged Lands Act (TSLA), passed by Congress in 1974. The act transferred to the V.I. government "all right, title and interest of the United States" in submerged lands within the territories 3-mile coastal "belts," according to the opinion.
Christensen sent a letter to the GAO on March 14, 2001, inquiring whether the ownership of the monuments was federal or local. The GAO's opinion was held up because of a delay in acquiring information from the U.S. Department of Interior. She received the response, which stated the submerged lands were federally owned, on Friday.
Christensen said the GAO's opinion does not represent a final authority on the issue. "That can only be done by a court of law," she said.
Christensen said she will meet with Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and the Planning and Natural Resources commissioner to discuss the opinion. This may result in different responses.
The V.I. government has several options in regards to the opinion, Christensen said. "They can challenge it in a court of law, let it stand and allow the process of the development of an interim management plan to continue, or they can request a revision of boundaries," she said. "Whatever happens, there needs to be a coordination of both local and federal officials on the promulgation of rules and regulations on the management and use of the monument areas."
Christensen warned that if the local government tried to fight the GAO's opinion, "it definitely would be an uphill battle." She said that based on her knowledge, monument designations have never been overturned.
Christensen said the monuments "should benefit the people of the Virgin Islands because we will be maintaining our reefs, which will provide healthy fish stocks for future generations."
"We're going to make sure that those who rely on the waters to make a living have some protection in place," she said.
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