May 30, 2005 — A tragedy is brewing in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We are referring to the possible sale of Great St. James Island for commercial development, including a hotel, which could happen at any time. As former caretakers of the island (one of us for thirty years) we wish to alert the public to the threat to the island's resources posed by commercial construction and by any subsequent use that is not closely monitored and constrained.
A variety of outstanding features need to be protected. Christmas Cove on the southwest side of the island is one of the most captivating, locally accessible, and well-known anchorages in the Caribbean. Moreover, the ruins of an eighteenth century, 10-acre cotton plantation including a slave-built wall of coral and a 9,000 gallon underground cistern, both of which are almost completely intact, are located on the north side of Christmas Cove. These ruins need to be excavated, preserved, and commemorated. Any construction of luxury dwellings on this site would be a gross insult to native Virgin Islanders and a grave loss to the heritage of the V.I.
The beautiful beach on the northeast covethe only true beach on the islandis a nesting ground for green turtles, which are on the federal list of "threatened species." The fringing reef on this cove, a favorite snorkeling site and collection point for exotic fish, badly needs rejuvenation and protection, and marine life has declined markedly throughout the cove. The tide pool area along the east coast of the island contains rare deposits of jasper, a semi-precious mineral, while the tide pools themselves are the habitats of thousands of tiny mollusks. And on the cliffs nearby one can find the lovely and rare golden woolly nipple cactus. In the island's four salt ponds a variety of birds feed, including herons, sandpipers, and rare ducks. These ponds have been designated as Areas of Particular Concern by the V.I. government; and the island and its waters are part of the Marine Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary that includes the mangrove lagoon. Enforcement, however, has been regrettably lax.
Degradation of these and other resources or interference with their accessibility to the public would affect a broad cross-section of the V.I. community. For many years Great St. James and its waters have been enjoyed by picnickers and campers from the lagoon area, the local and international boating community, charter boat visitors, naturalists, high school students on field trips, scuba divers and snorkelers, members of the V.I. Conservation Society, and hundreds of residents and Yacht Club members and their guests on the east end of St. Thomas who feast their eyes on the island's lush, untouched environment every day and enjoy sailing on its pristine waters. Moreover, for many years fishermen from Frenchtown and the lagoon have collected soldier crabs and fry for bait and set out traps in the northeast cove where the island's splendid beach is located. All of these longstanding uses of the island would be seriously jeopardized by commercial development.
In addition to the detrimental impacts of large-scale development on natural resources, archeological sites, and the livelihood of fishermen, it should be noted that the owner has a 40-foot wide right-of-way running down to the beach between the Anchorage condos and the Yacht Club on St. Thomas. If this right-of-way is used for the trucking and barging of construction materials, the impact on this residential and recreational area would be devastating.
The island, which is for sale for $25 million, was purchased about 25 years ago for $2 million, while improvements on the island since its purchase have cost less than $1 million. This high price tag suggests that only a large, off-island corporation whose exclusive concern is with substantial profit by means of massive or upscale development would be able and willing to afford the price.
What prospective buyers might not know, however, is that the U.S. Geological Soil Survey of the island conducted a number of years ago concluded that its clay and rock terrain is not suitable for construction, agriculture, or livestock. About 60 per cent of the island's surface, which slopes steeply, is covered with boulders, stones, or rock outcrops, which cause loss of soil due to runoff and are very unfavorable to construction and cultivation. Moreover, unlike St. John and the north side of St. Thomas, the island lies in a dry zone where rain might not fall for months at a time. Consequently, the island's only suitable uses, according to this government source, are for nature trails, which use would be of great benefit to school programs as well as to tourists, and for recreation. The island could also serve admirably as a laboratory for natural scientists and a retreat for writers and artists. In sum, an organization like Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service, a civic-minded foundation or philanthropist, or even the V.I. government would be far more appropriate as owners than private, commercial developers. (The V.I. government has eminent domain for purposes of recreation.)
Prospective buyers might also be unaware that just a few years ago it was reported that every hotel on St. Thomas had declared bankruptcy at one time or another. Do we need another hotel in the vicinity of St. Thomas?
If the line is ever to be drawn at voracious commercial development and spoliation of our beautiful islands it should be drawn at Great St. James. Two large, high-density hotels and a condominium complex have already been built nearby on St. Thomas just opposite the west shore of Great St. James. Another development in this area would create congestion on the water, including interference with the frequent passage of ferryboats between St. John and Charlotte Amalie, and also with the annual international Rolex regatta. Congestion would also endanger small craft, including those of fishermen and the many young people who take sailing lessons at the Yacht Club. Finally, it should be noted that this passageway is the route followed by roughly 200 whales on their annual migration to the Caribbean from November to May. Major developments with boating facilities on both sides of this passageway would be an unmitigated disaster.
Great St. James Island is one of the natural treasures of the V.I. If the public does not raise its voice to save the island, it could be lost forever to posterity. Great St. James should not be exploited for the profit and pleasure of the few at the expense of the many while the public sleeps.
Editors note:We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to firstname.lastname@example.org.