Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Source or its staff members.
Say one, say two, the creation of the Virgin Islands National Park has been both harmful and beneficial to the people of the Virgin Islands as expressed by the critics and defenders of the land swap between the National Park Service (NPS) and the Government of the Virgin Islands. Beyond my role as a senator and a decision-maker in this matter, the land swap piqued my interest because I am a student of Virgin Islands history. But it also converged with the fact that I am a real estate attorney, and I understand the value of land, along with the rights of real property ownership. My review of the public comments, letters, and testimonies from the residents of St. John led me to research the origin of national parks and specifically the creation of the Virgin Islands National Park.
National parks, celebrated symbols of environmental preservation and national pride, trace their roots back to an era when European colonial powers sought to expand their dominion over vast territories. These parks were born as part of the colonial enterprise, often at the expense of Indigenous communities deeply connected to these pristine landscapes.
Thus, national parks’ protection of nature also entails control over people and the landscapes they inhabit – in essence, separating humans from nonhuman nature. Specific examples of land dispossession are the removal of the Maasai for the creation of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania; the destruction of the properties of the local populations in the removal of Makuleke people from the Kruger National Park in South Africa; and the genocide of the Ahwahnechee people committed during the creation of the Yosemite National Park in the United States.
Indigenous people were forcibly removed so colonial settlers could enjoy the aesthetics of nature, and in the case of Africa, hunt in the game reserves. This displacement disrupted the social fabric of these communities, uprooted families, and often resulted in future generations living in unfamiliar places, disconnected from their cultural heritage and ancestral ties. The forced removal of Indigenous communities from their ancestral lands severs the intergenerational transfer of wisdom, customs, and values that has shaped these communities for centuries. This separation can lead to increased marginalization, poverty, and social inequalities for Indigenous peoples who have been uprooted from their lands, illustrating the dark side of environmental preservation.
In the case of the Virgin Islands National Park, the story takes a different twist but with the same adverse consequences. Unlike the forced dispossession of Indigenous people through the illegitimization of communal land tenure, the displacement and marginalization of ancestral St. Johnians occurred through a variety of propertied land mechanisms, including land purchases and donations; the 1962 Congressional revision of the boundaries of the Park adding 5,650 acres of offshore underwater habitat which includes coral gardens, marine life, seascapes, submerged lands and waters; coercive policies (landlocked properties); and the prioritization of conservation objectives over the rights and well-being of ancestral communities.
For a purchase price of $25 million, and subject to existing private rights in the conveyed lands, the U.S. acquired from Denmark all property, dominion, and sovereignty possessed by Denmark in the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, nearby uninhabited islands, as well as the submerged lands surrounding the islands. In the 1936 and 1954 Organic Acts, Congress transferred “control” of all public property, not reserved by the United States for public purposes, to the “control” of the Government of the Virgin Islands. Not until 1974 did the Government of the Virgin Islands obtain “ownership” or all U.S. “right, title, and interest” in the public property as to which “control” had already been transferred.
In the mid-20th century, St. John was vastly different from the island we know today. The arrival of wealthy individuals like Laurance Rockefeller and the establishment of the Virgin Islands National Park represented a new chapter in the island’s history. When Rockefeller arrived, St. John lacked proper roads, cars, electricity, and even a dock, according to the NPS’s website. Yet, intriguingly, there were private landowners whose identities and actions remain a historical enigma, though we do know that the majority of the 800 residents on St. John at the time were the descendants of formerly enslaved people who were kidnapped from Africa to work on the Danish sugar and cotton plantations. Over a span of four years, Rockefeller and the Jackson Hole Preserve, a non-profit conservation organization he founded in 1940, began purchasing parcels of privately held land. Mr. Rockefeller and the Jackson Hole Preserve then transferred these properties over to the federal government, laying the foundation for the creation of the Virgin Islands National Park.
The Virgin Islands National Park, like the establishment of U.S. national parks, is a testament to the intricate dance of political processes, shaped by legislation and often marked by fervent lobbying efforts. In this case, it was propelled by influential figures, including Laurance Rockefeller, a prominent businessman and financier. In 1956, the Virgin Islands National Park took its formal shape, entrusted to the Secretary of the Interior with a mandate to preserve the island’s natural condition for the benefit and inspiration of the public. The legislation allows the park’s acreage to cover 9,485 acres on the island of St. John, with provisions for accepting donations of real property until this threshold is met. However, this legislation while championing the preservation of natural beauty, also perpetuates colonialist ideologies. The website for the “Trust for Public Land” boasts that beginning in 2009, the Trust led a multiyear effort to acquire as much of the remaining privately held land on the island of St. John and incorporate them into the Virgin Islands National Park. Their goal is to prevent development in the park to preserve the natural habitats and essential recreational economy. The land donations to the NPS replicate colonial-era social relations and further displace St. John’s ancestral communities.
Julius Sprauve, the St. John senator after whom the island’s only public school is named, played a pivotal and multifaceted role in shaping the island’s destiny. He lent his support to Mr. Rockefeller, the Jackson Hole Preserve, and other non-native stakeholders in their endeavor to establish the Virgin Islands National Park. What makes former Senator Sprauve’s involvement even more intriguing is that he did not just offer his encouragement; he backed his belief with action. He made the decision to sell 225 acres of his private property to the Preserve, which was subsequently donated to the Park. The twist in this tale lies in the fact that the very man after whom the public school on St. John is named, Julius Sprauve, is now at the heart of the conversation surrounding a land swap to build a new public school. Balancing the desire for a new school with the legacy of the man whose name adorns the existing institution adds depth to this discussion about the future of St. John.
Let’s pause to consider the words of former Senator Sprauve, who hailed the prosperity brought about by the Virgin Islands National Park and Mr. Rockefeller: “I can speak with complete conviction that during the past year and more, as a sole result of this generous and far-seeing man’s efforts, our people have enjoyed greater prosperity than at any time in the memory of our oldest inhabitants. And without these efforts, many of our people would have been in a condition approaching destitution, and many would have been forced to seek precarious employment in distant lands, as has been the unhappy rule in years gone by.” The legislature agreed with Senator Sprauve and passed a Resolution on January 27, 1956, approving the establishment of a National Park on the Island of St. John. The Resolution states that the establishment of the park is in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands for the purpose of stimulating the tourist trade and preserving certain invaluable historic sites, relics, and plant life. It resolves that all “efforts be made by the Congress of the United States and the United States National Park Service to protect and maintain the vested interests of the residents of the Island of St. John.” The Legislature and Sen. Sprauve imagined a brighter future; however, in the grand tapestry of history, it is evident that foresight was in short supply – St. Johnians are now seeking employment in distant lands because they cannot afford to live on St. John.
Let me be clear that, the essence of safeguarding our natural beauty and ensuring environmental protection is undeniably a virtuous endeavor. I appreciate the fact that St. John is not allowed to be a place that is over-developed but, at the same time, it is underdeveloped with respect to taking care of its people. As I look at our beloved St. John, we have been navigating treacherous waters, where the preservation of nature disregards and dismisses the pressing needs of people. Adequate housing and educational facilities are fundamental rights that are essential for the well-being and advancement of any community. The acquisition of land by the NPS translates into limited opportunities for St. Johnians to build homes and leaves them with diminishing space for their basic infrastructure needs.
Furthermore, when land is disproportionately allocated to the NPS, it hinders the ability of ancestral communities to access suitable areas for establishing schools and building homes for their families. This imbalance in land distribution exacerbates the socioeconomic disparities experienced by St. Johnians. At a recent senate committee hearing in July, officials of the VIHFA testified that they continue to look for “property to be able to build affordable homes on St. John.” The lack of access to land for housing and infrastructure perpetuates overcrowding, inadequate living conditions, and compromised educational opportunities for children. It reinforces a cycle of poverty and marginalization that has been historically perpetuated through colonial practices.
Moreover, some individuals, predominantly settlers from the mainland United States, have framed their land acquisition on the island around the presence of the park, using it as a justification for their purchase. This mindset becomes evident in recorded resistance to utilizing Parcel No. 6 Catherineberg for construction of a school. Certain critics argue against the school’s creation, suggesting alternatives such as refurbishing the existing facility or constructing a new one on non-National Park Service land. They emphasize the value of their homes, purchased for their serene settings and proximity to the protected parkland. This perspective reflects a colonialist attitude that prioritizes tranquility over the needs of the local community. Furthermore, it perpetuates the historical displacement and removal of St. Johnians, as highlighted in a comment from the Federal Register, which questions whether the school’s construction will lead to further development on the island and expresses concerns about the potential consequences of increased population due to the school’s presence.
Moreover, the NPS’s ownership of two-thirds or three-fourths (if the goal is met) of the island limits the amount of land available for productive use and this scarcity drives up real estate prices, making ownership of property inaccessible for ancestral St. Johnians and perpetuating inequality. The September 2023 issue of the real estate magazine “Houses!” offers quarter-acre lots for $195,000- and million-dollar homes for sale on St. John.
There is also the narrative that the island park on St. John preserves the pristine beaches, Indigenous Taino ancient petroglyphs and the ruins of sugar plantations making it a unique destination for visitors. This narrative focuses on showcasing the natural beauty of this “protected area” while ignoring and marginalizing the deep and complex relationship that the ancestral St. Johnians have with these landscapes, erasing their history, contributions, and knowledge. Communities, whose knowledge, and practices shape the landscapes, which hold historical, cultural, and spiritual significance for ancestral and indigenous residents, are transformed into commodities to be exploited for economic gain by the settlers – for St. John it is called essential recreational economy.
The National Park System of the United States is the world’s largest, both in number of units and in total land area. The United States has national parks in thirty states and two territories. The mission of the National Park Service is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” National parks are necessary for the preservation of wildlife, fisheries, ecosystems, landscapes, and habitats. However, the amount of land covered by the NPS on the island of St. John is unfair and unreasonable, especially in comparison to national park land coverage in the 30 states.
The state with the highest percentage of national park coverage is Hawaii with national parks making up 358,870 acres of the state’s 4,134,000 acres or 9.41% of the state. Currently, approximately 60% of St. John falls under NPS control, and the specter of this figure potentially rising to 75% looms large if the park’s acreage reaches 9,485 acres of St. John’s 12,544 acres.The social, economic, and cultural impact of this situation on the ancestral St. Johnians is profound, yet it often goes ignored, disregarded, or dismissed. The St. John of today cries out for essentials – schools, housing, hospitals.
The questions that beg answers are unvarnished. Did our historical figures, our lawmakers, truly anticipate the population increase and the short supply of land that we see today? Their visions seem distant from our reality, and as we forge our path forward, it is incumbent upon us to rectify these past decisions.The contours of our future demand action. The complexities of this endeavor are undeniable, with intricate legalities and a stark truth: the National Park Service cannot simply donate land; only Congress can amend the intentions of previous legislative acts.Whatever the intent of Congress in 1956, Congress may change its intent in subsequent acts. Therefore, we should advocate for an amendment to the law that reduces the National Park Service’s land ownership of St. John to a more reasonable and equitable percentage with a transfer of a certain number of acres to the Government of the Virgin Islands. This change would free up more land for affordable housing and community development, benefitting the local population, fostering economic growth, and shared prosperity.
Reclaiming land on St. John is a journey of profound significance. For me, the only way to get the land on St. John proper back is piece by piece, plot by plot. It is about restoring equilibrium to land use and ownership, harmonizing environmental preservation with the rightful needs of our community. I find solace in the idea of placing a school on thegrounds of the Catherineberg Estate. It becomes a beacon of cultural enlightenment, a place where our children can grasp their heritage and history with an intimate understanding. If we genuinely believe that our children should know their history and what it means to be a St. Johnian, what better place to put the school than on a property that is of historical significance. A place where their ancestors lived and fought for freedom. When we say that Virgin Islands history should be taught in our public schools, we must be serious about it. If we are serious about it, then we should understand the seriousness of getting those acres back. And so, for me the highest and best use of the Catherineberg Estate is for the education of our children.
Moreover, the significance of owning real property in Western society cannot be understated. From personal security and wealth accumulation to economic growth and community development, property ownership continues to be a driving force in shaping our islands. As we move forward, let us strive to create a society where property ownership is accessible to all, where responsible stewardship is encouraged, and where the benefits of this essential aspect of human existence can be shared by everyone.
Yet, it does not stop there.
As we reflect on the 175th Anniversary of Emancipation Day, it is crucial that we confront the colonial history embedded in national parks and its impact on the people of the Virgin Islands, specifically on the island of St. John, which is critical to our debates on the Virgin Islands relationship with the United States and the development of a constitution. Although the Virgin Islands stands in a different relationship to the federal government than does a state, the federal government selectively and unilaterally determines when the Virgin Islands should be treated like a state and when it should not. It is crucial that we acknowledge this history and the ways in which the Virgin Islands National Park has been complicit in perpetuating colonialism by the displacement of St. Johnians—where so much property was taken for the park and by doing so, disrupted the social fabric of St. John’s communities that have lived there for generations.
As we move forward, we must work towards decolonizing these spaces and rectifying the injustices that have been perpetuated through the creation and management of the Virgin Islands National Park. By striving to find a balance between protecting natural landscapes and respecting the rights and livelihoods of ancestral St. Johnians, we can create opportunities for coexistence, sustainable development, and the preservation of cultural heritage. This process entails ensuring that ancestral St. Johnians have a voice in the management and governance of protected areas, recognizing and respecting their land rights, addressing the historical and ongoing impacts of displacement and marginalization, and working towards equitable land distribution that addresses the needs of both conservation and ancestral St. Johnian communities.
In the grand scheme of things, this is not an overnight transformation but a gradual process, a reclamation of land for both the development and preservation of our beloved island of St. John. Together, we can strive for a future where national and territorial parks are not only spaces of environmental preservation but also sites of justice, equity, and healing, and ancestral Virgin Islanders are not only respected as custodians of the land but also active partners in the stewardship of our natural heritage.
Marise C. James is a senator in the 35th Legislature and Chairperson of the Committee on Education and Workforce Development. She is also a real estate attorney and mediator on the island of St. Croix.