April 3, 2003 The Interior Department must balance environmental protection with economic growth for the territory, said Interior Secretary Gale Norton at a press conference held Thursday at the V.I. National Park on St. John. About 100 people gathered under a tent to listen to her remarks before she took questions from the media.
"We have a wide variety of different responsibilities in the Virgin Islands," Norton said. "We want to be helpful in as many ways as we can."
She noted that the territory has suffered a decline in tourism since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which has impacted our economy. To help ease the situation, she plans a July conference to bring together investors and Virgin Islands businesses.
Norton also said that the Border Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard were responsible for keeping out illegal aliens. However, on St. John, where many illegal aliens enter, that job usually falls to the local police and the park rangers because the closest Coast Guard base is on St. Thomas.
While Norton addressed territorial issues, she also commented on matters pertaining to the territory's national parks.
She said that the Bush administration will not reverse former President Clinton's designation of St. John's Coral Reef National Monument or the extension of St. Croix's Buck Island Reef National Monument. "We announced immediately after President Bush took office that we would continue with the monuments," Norton said.
In response to a question about the monuments' impacts on local fishermen, she said that experience shows that when areas are protected, fish stocks improve elsewhere in the region. She said the Interior Department, through the National Park Service, is now starting to develop management plans for the monuments.
And Norton said that while attention has been focused on the creation of new parks, the old ones are deteriorating. "Repairing visitor's centers and taking care of sewer systems doesn't have the same appeal," she said.
However, she said that Bush understands the importance of national parks and is pushing for money to address the maintenance backlog at parks across the country. Norton said that the 2004 federal budget includes $700 million to repair parks.
Park Superintendent John King announced at the press conference that the park will break ground in May for new bathrooms, changing rooms and pavilions at Hawksnest Bay. The old ones were in deplorable shape.
Norton noted that the plans to privatize some National Park Service staff jobs are moving slowly with only a few thousand being evaluated each year. She said she envisioned that maintenance and other similar jobs could be privatized. "We are looking for the most cost effective approach for tax payers," she said.
Norton, who is making her first visit to the territory, will remain on St. John until Sunday.
King said last week that Norton will go snorkeling, Scuba diving and hiking while she is here. She was scheduled for an around-the-island boat tour Thursday afternoon.
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