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On Island Profile: Helen Gjessing

Helen GjessingLike a self-contained eco-system, Helen Gjessing’s boundless passion for the environment is what fuels her consciousness. Arguably, more than any other individual in the territory, she has spoken out for the protection of the Virgin Islands’ fragile environment. It is her passion.

Wearing a T-shirt that says, "Wanted: room to roam for buffaloes," Gjessing sits down on a recent morning to share a bit of her history. She spent a happy childhood in rural Concord, Mass.

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"When I’d get home from school," she says, "I’d run through the fields, the woods, like a wild thing. I loved it."

Perhaps it was also in the genes. Her mother taught microbiology at Simmons College in Boston.

Gjessing is still youthful-looking, with a bobbed cut to her gray hair, a jaunty posture and, when she feels like it, a welcoming smile. She lives in the home she and her late husband, Fred, purchased in the mid 1960s on a hillside lush with vegetation overlooking Magens Bay, where she still walks and swims five mornings a week.

She points out a mango tree that’s lived through a few storms.

"We planted this tree decades ago," she says, running her hand along a branch.

Gjessing insists she was not given to academics in high school, but proudly notes she was named best girl athlete, an honor she also received at Beloit College in Wisconsin, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology while picking up honors in athletics and poetry. She received her master’s degree in zoology from the University of Massachusetts.

She moved to St. Thomas with her husband, National Park Service historical archaeologist Fred Gjessing, in 1958. They had spent a few years in San Juan, then Fred was transferred to the Virgin Islands.

They had two children: Jonathan, born in 1957, and Catherine, born in 1960, before Gjessing started on her academic career.

"I was one of the first two faculty at the then-College of the Virgin Islands," she says. "It was the summer of ’63, and I was hired as a part-time general biology instructor. We had to design and build the lab in the old administration building."

They used whatever materials they could scrounge.

"We built our work table with cinder blocks and a plywood top, and we got stools for the students from the bar of an old hotel on the property," she says with a laugh. "We had about 16 students, eight microscopes, no air conditioning; the sand flies would flock in the room in the afternoon, and the airport noise was horrendous."

That was the beginning of 34-year career, from which she retired in 1997 as biology professor emeritus.

In 1969, the size of the Gjessing family doubled when their close friends, Frank and Helen Kirchoff, died in an airplane accident, leaving two young boys, Craig and Eric.

"Helen was my closest friend," Gjessing says today. "The boys are our family."

After the children were in school, Gjessing became active in environmental issues, while Fred continued his career as a restoration architect for the Park Service.

Where most folks have a library of books, Gjessing’s rooms are filled with volume upon volume of environmental-assesment reports (EARs) and all manner of documents, arguably the island’s most comprehensive collection of studies and plans. Gjessing has reviewed and testified on virtually every coastal-zone development permit on St. Thomas over the past three decades.

A pioneering member of the Environmental Association of St. Thomas and St. John, Gjessing has chaired the League of Women Voters environmental protection committee for more years than she can remember.

Known for her perseverance and tenacity, Gjessing for years has been the biggest thorn in the side of the Coastal Zone Management Commission, a body whose work she knows with an intimacy borne of decades of study.

In 2002, the environmental protection committee of the League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands won the Coastal Zone Organization of the Year Award at its Non-Point Source Pollution Conference on St. John. Gjessing, chair of the award-winning committee, said in a typical understatement, "I was surprised." Later, she said, "What, are they trying to bribe me?"

Her great frustration is with the government’s lack of implementing a land- and water-use plan, which has been on the boards since the 1970s. Over the years, the plan has been endlessly reworked but never made into law.

"I hope I see it in my lifetime," she says with a sigh. "What I would really love to see is a territorial park system. One that was really set up to protect the waters around us. Our reefs are disappearing, and we can do a lot locally to prevent that from happening. We have to have more enforcement of good management practices."

Right now she is putting her energy toward an effort to prevent the dumping of harbor spoils in Lindbergh Bay. An appeal has been filed before the Board of Land Use Appeals by the National Wildlife Federation, the V.I. Conservation Society and the Environmental Association of St. Thomas-St. John.

"I have no issue with the spoils," Gjessing explains. "They are not toxic; they simply don’t belong in Lindbergh. The decision to dump there is contrary to public-trust doctrine, and runs afoul of the Endangered Species Act."

With a patience borne of years, she says, "We have no idea when the appeal will be heard."

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