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HomeNewsArchivesSt. Croix Residents Wary of Buck Island Restrictions

St. Croix Residents Wary of Buck Island Restrictions

Ben West of the National Park Service speaking on the proposed National Park Service general management plan for Buck Island National Monument.

An angry crowd of about a hundred expressed deep hostility to any new restrictions on snorkeling or mooring vessels around Buck Island, during public hearings Thursday evening in Christiansted on a draft of a new National Park Service general management plan for Buck Island Reef National Monument.

The draft plan was put together by the National Park Service after taking public comments in 2004 and 2005, National Park Superintendent Joel Tutein told the crowd. Since the previous plan was enacted in 1983, President Bill Clinton greatly expanded the undersea acreage of the park, increasing it from 704 acres to 19,015 acres, and also declaring it a "no take" zone, banning fishing and extraction of resources within the park. Then in 2006, Elkhorn and Staghorn corals were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species act. A new management plan was needed to address these changes, Tutein said.

The National Park Service’s draft plan has four alternatives, labeled A through D, where alternative A is the status quo, said Alyse Getty, a technical consultant contracted by the Park Service. Alternatives B, C and D take varying tacks to address the changes in Buck Island National Monument’s status. The National Park Service endorses option B, which creates management zones for anchoring; island discovery, hiking and picnics; recreation, scuba and snorkeling; and lastly, a large marine hazard zone nearly encircling the island and extending well off shore on its northern side.

Snorkeling would still be allowed on the underwater trail, and boats could moor off the island’s western beach, but snorkeling, scuba and boating would all be prohibited in the marine hazard zone. These potential restrictions raised the ire of everyone who took the microphone Thursday.

"I don’t understand what is so critical about closing off the park so completely," said Paul Cusin, who said he has been working for a concessionaire bringing visitors to Buck Island on and off for over a decade. "People are concerned about losing their right to access the island," Cusin said, eliciting applause from the crowd. Former Sen. Virdin Brown at Thursday's public meeting.

Virdin Brown, former V.I. senator, said he shared the concern of others about what he called "mission creep" and the gradual exclusion of St. Croix residents from the island. He said he was just as concerned "whether the authority exists for the National Park Service to occupy the park."

Citing chapter and verse of the V.I. legislative act conferring Buck Island to the National Park Service, Brown said that transfer was conditioned on the federal government placing no restrictions on boating, fishing, swimming and recreation there. Therefore, he said, to much applause, he believes the National Park Service lacks the power to impose such restrictions, and if it does, the park land would revert back to V.I. ownership.

Over three hours of discussion, another 20 speakers raised the same concerns about restricted access and about the legal authority of the National Park Service to restrict access again and again, with many angrily suggesting the Park Service is not being straightforward and may not actually care what residents think.

After the meeting, Getty said Brown had raised the question of legal authority before, and the planning process was put on hold to allow the U.S. Government Accountability Office to weigh in. The GAO issued a lengthy report concluding the National Park Service did have the legal authority to proceed, she said.

St. Croix Environmental Association Executive Director Paul Chakroff took a middle path, sharing the concerns about access, but emphasizing that the plan before the audience was not the final say on the matter.

"There is a process by which we can modify the existing alternatives or even identify new alternatives," Chakroff said. "If snorkeling is not there and we want snorkeling, there is an opportunity to put it in." SEA will be systematically looking at the plans and will formulate proposals to submit to the Park Service to make them better, he said.

Ben West, the Park Service’s chief of planning for the southeast region, said all comments made during two public meetings this week, along with all written comments submitted by May 1, will be recorded, reviewed and considered. The Park Service will incorporate as many of the suggestions as possible into the plan while also meeting the Park Services’s mandates under federal law, he said.

"Hopefully it will be obvious to you we have taken your comments into consideration," West said. The final plan will again be made public and there will be another round of public comment, he said.

"Nothing is final until the record of decision is signed" in the spring of 2013, he said.

Comments may be made by email or mail until May 1, with forms and addresses available at the park’s website www.nps.gov/buis. The draft plan may also be downloaded from that site.

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