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Magens Bay Discovery Trail Opens to Public

May 22, 2004 – When Frank McConnell donated 25-acres of prime land overlooking Magens Bay to The Nature Conservancy a quarter-of-a-century ago, he did so in the hope that residents and tourists alike would someday be able to enjoy an unspoiled, green habitat.
That hope became reality Saturday when 65 appreciative residents and visitors braved rain showers to hike1.5 miles through McConnell's former property – the top of the trail is off Magens Bay Road at Canaan and winds its way down to Magens Bay Beach – during the official opening of the Magans Bay Discovery Trail.
"It's a special day,'' said McConnell, who donated the land in memory of his mother, Virginia, for whom the trail is dedicated. "She loved nature and she loved St. Thomas.''
Some eco-tour operators and local hikers had a step up prior to Saturday's official opening, having taken advantage of paid tours in the past to hike the trail.
"That's what makes this day all the more special,'' Loring Schwarz, the Conservancy's interim director for the Virgin Islands and Eastern Caribbean regions, said. "While it has already been used to the delight of others, today marks the first day that the trail is open free of charge to everyone.'' The Conservancy accepts donations.
The trail is part of a 319-acre land mass – the Magens Bay Watershed Preserve – managed jointly by the Conservancy, Magens Bay Authority and the Virgin Islands government's Department of Planning and Natural Resources. Over the years the entities began acquiring land for the preserve through donations, like that of McConnell, and purchases. In fact, recent government acquisitions marked the first time in local history that civic dollars were used to buy land for the sole purpose of conservation.
"Preserving the watershed protects vital habitats and eliminates the threat of residential and commercial development which, over time, can damage the coral reefs and marine habitat in Magens Bay,'' Schwarz said. . "With the growing interest in eco-tourism, the protection of such natural assets becomes even more critical to the future of the island's tourism industry.''
On Saturday, though, hikers basked in the glow of the present. The 90-minute hike, hosted by arborist Ellen Higgins, Schwarz, the Conservancy's protected area specialist Stephanie Wear and associate director of the Caribbean, Carmen Mullins, featured information about native and migrant birds, plants, animals, marine species and historical ruins located within the preserve.
"This is a great trail,'' said hiker Mario Francis, program director of the Junior Gardener and Ecology Academy. "The more people who experience this, the more environmentally conscious they will become which ultimately benefits all of us . . . and what an outdoor classroom for kids!''
St. Thomas teacher, and hiker, Yvonne Freeman agreed.
"There's lots to see and kids will love it,'' said Freeman, a computer literacy teacher at Joseph Gomez Elementary School. "While we expect adults to gain a better understanding of the environment through the creation of this trail, kids, on the other hand, who learn to appreciate what's here will fight to keep it.''
Saturday's grand opening marks the first hiking trail of its kind on St. Thomas compared to about 35 trails on St. Croix and 20 trails over 22 miles in the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John, according to Sonia Maynard-John, president of the St. Croix Hiking Association. And, while St. Thomas does not have a formal hiking association, Maynard-John says the opening of the Magens Bay trail, coupled with the growth of eco-tourism, could lead to the formation of a St. Thomas chapter.
"There are many wonderful, active hikers on St. Thomas,'' Maynard-John said in a telephone interview. "The new trail will certainly help to educate residents and tourists about our history and sensitive environmental issues, and it could very well lead to the creation of a St. Thomas hiking association which would only help to educate the public further.''
At time of the official announcement of the acquisition of the land in July 2002, The Nature Conservancy and V.I. government officials said several trails would be developed throughout the preserve. Work has not yet commenced on any other trails. The current trail cost $75,000 to develop initially. (See "From Drake's Seat to Beach Now Protected Land")
The Conservancy's Schwarz said the trail still needs some "fine-tuning,'' from adding signs to improving some walking paths. And, she said, the Conservancy would be calling on local volunteers to help create a guided tour schedule. For now, interested volunteers and residents/visitors seeking a guided tour are asked to contact the Conservancy, 773-5575.
The preserve protects 25 percent of the Magens Bay watershed and just two percent of the entire island, according to figures released by The Conservancy.
"That means there's still a long way to go,'' said McConnell. "But the Conservancy has done a great job picking up enough property and spreading the word so that this area, and its green space, can be protected and enjoyed for years to come.''
Hikers are asked to park at Magens Bay and take a taxi to the top of the trail and hike down, as there is no parking available at the trailhead and the walk up can be strenuous.

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