The territorys delegate to Congress said Wednesday that the secretary of Interior has agreed to have the agencys lawyers revisit the land ownership issues surrounding the designation of national monuments in the waters of the Virgin Islands.
Delegate Donna Christian Christensen said she met with Interior Secretary Gale Norton on Wednesday to ask that she have Interiors solicitor general take another look at the issue of land ownership, and "she agreed to do so."
"Secretary Norton assured me that her staff is reviewing my request for a review of the legal analysis and recognizes its importance in resolving the overall monument issue," Christensen said. "She has also agreed not to impose any restrictions on traditional uses until the outstanding issues are resolved."
The decision by former President Bill Clinton to create and expand national monuments in the territory in the waning days of his administration has caused a storm of controversy. Politicians and other V.I. residents, including Christensen, argue that the monument lands designated by Interior actually belong to the V.I. government and not the federal government.
Opponents of the monuments also say that while they are not against protecting natural resources, Interior didnt take into consideration the effect the no-take zones within the monuments would have on the local fishing industry.
According to the proclamation signed by Clinton just before leaving office in January that expands St. Croixs Buck Island Monument by 18,000 acres, the secretary of the Interior, who oversees the Park Service, has two years to prepare a management plan, including the management of vessels in the monument, to protect natural and historical resources. For the newly created 12,700-acre monument off St. John, the time line is three years.
Meanwhile, in a move Christensen said was designed to make her look bad, the V.I. Senate Rules Committee voted Wednesday to condemn the designation of the national monuments. Christensen said the vote came "too late" because Congress has never overturned a monument designation. And while Norton has voiced concerns about the designations, she has said she supports working with local concerns as the management plans are drawn up over the next several years.
And, Christensen said, if Interiors solicitor general finds that the monument lands belong to the territory, the issue will be moot.
Christensen also said she has written to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to issue a legal opinion on the ownership of the lands.
"Pending the outcome of these opinions, I have asked the secretary and she has agreed not to impose any restrictions on traditional uses," Christensen said.
Meanwhile, Christensen, along with Guam Delegate Robert Underwood, asked Norton to secure the Bush administration's support to replace the dollars that the Virgin Islands and Guam will lose as a result of the pending federal tax cut.
Christensen also asked for Norton's support of her bill to lift the cap on Medicaid funds to the territories and the cap on rum excise tax revenue returned to the Virgin Islands.
"While letting Delegate Underwood and I know that she does not have all of her department's staff in place as of yet, the secretary pledged to do all she could to assist us in successfully resolving the issues we raised with her," Christensen said.