June 15, 2004 -The Virgin Islands faces three distinct challenges in preserving its forests, Agriculture Commissioner Lawrence Lewis said during a break in Tuesday's session of the 9th annual Caribbean Urban and Community Forestry Conference.
The territory's forests are threatened by clearing for development, failure to plant and take care of trees in areas with high concentrations of people, and damage done by heavy rainfall in areas with no trees, Lewis said. And as rain flows downhill, it takes with it sediment that smothers ocean reefs.
"Those three things together give us a very good sense of what concerns us," he said.
He said there are local programs to help solve such problems, including tax breaks for property owners who keep their land as forests, but he acknowledged it is an uphill battle.
The forestry conference, which runs through Friday, is taking place at the Westin St. John Resort. It has brought together 120 people from the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the mainland to discuss how to best manage Caribbean forests.
Lewis said that on the mainland, states own lots of acreage that they keep as forests. In the Virgin Islands, there are no territorial forests. However, the Agriculture Department owns 2,500 acres that it rents to farmers — 400 acres on St. Thomas and the rest on St. Croix. St. John has no such territorial land, but two-thirds of the island is preserved by the federal government as the V.I. National Park.
Sen. Louis P. Hill noted that the national park contributes greatly to St. John's economy. "It's one of the most vibrant of all the islands," he said.
Hill took the organizers of the conference to task for not including participants from other Caribbean islands. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, "the more affluent, have to reach out to those not so fortunate," he said.
Louis E. Peterson, University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service district supervisor, said in a later presentation that the urban/community forest concept is not a focus in most other Caribbean locations. "But we do need to stretch our hands more," he agreed.
Hill, like Lewis before him, mentioned the recent devastating floods in Haiti. Heavy deforestation by people who needed the trees for fuel caused the flooding, he said.
Lewis said that Haiti needs to find an alternative source of fuel and to impose laws that make cutting trees illegal in order to solve its forestry problems. He estimated it will take at least 20 years of good management before Haiti has viable forests again.
Lewis also said Haiti's neighbor, the Dominican Republic, has been making efforts to reduce the size of its forests. "Haven't they looked across the border and learned anything?" he asked.
Petersen urged the participants to network with their colleagues to share information on how best to improve the Caribbean forests.
The conference also included a display by artisans who use trees to make furniture and other items from local woods.
Rodger Nickell of St. Croix said he used downed trees and those that had to be removed to craft his wood turned bowls and vases. "This tree had its roots growing into a cistern," he explained as he showed off his wares.
Showing off another bowl, he said that the fungus that grows on the wood gives it its distinctive pattern.
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