As plans to restore Alphonso Nelthropp Arboretum at Magens Bay from the destruction left by two major hurricanes go forward, they need to include establishing trails, creating signage, building benches and exercise areas and eradicating invasive species, according to a recently released research study.
The plan also needs to consider the new normal, which will most assuredly include stronger and more frequent storms.
The arboretum has been off limits since the storms of September 2017. Though not heavily trafficked, the way the beach is, the once verdant sanctuary a thousand or so feet from the ocean, guarded by a thick perimeter of impenetrably arboreal sentries is used primarily by locals. Before the historic destruction of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, a smattering of humans could be found taking pictures, running, meditating, or bird watching. At the bottom of the nature trail, it was the first and last place one passed through on hikes up the steep mountainside overlooking Magens Bay.
It is also the home of researchers and the variety of wildlife they study. Frogs, lizards, bats and birds have in the past found refuge in the trees, wetlands and natural habitat of the tropical forest.
“People are desperate to get back there,” Renata Platenberg, lead faculty mentor on the project, said at monthly meeting of the Magens Bay Authority Board in May. “But we should do it right, instead of doing it quick,” she said.
The 2018 University of the Virgin Islands Master of Marine and Environmental Science Cohort, which began six short months after the two back-to-back storms, began collecting data in the arboretum on the species of trees and the damage associated with them from the hurricanes and produced a report that was made public this month.
The forest that included a coconut grove began its life in the early part of the 20th century from a dream of Swiss industrialist Arthur Fairchild – to bring exotic trees from around the world to plant on the property he once owned.
Fairchild was aided and guided by arboretum namesake Nelthropp, whose vast botanical expertise was put to work in creating Fairchild’s tropical fantasy. The work was created on the 50-plus acres Fairchild had begun to acquire 100 years ago as the former Danish colony was beginning its new life under the United States flag. Fairchild, who had gathered the seeds and cuttings for the trees from across the globe to place in his garden a thousand feet from Magens Bay, eventually deeded the property to the people of the Virgin Islands and the oversight was placed with the autonomous Magens Bay Authority.
So when Platenberg opined that non-native, invasive species needed to be eradicated, she was not talking about the remaining Fairchild “legacy trees,” as they are referred to.
“Even though the Fairchild trees are not native plants, they are an important part of the historical significance of the arboretum,” the report states, “Identified Fairchild trees need to be marked for protection.”
Not so the invasive copperpod, which has taken over since the storms. From southeast Asia, the copperpod will take over the forest, the report said.
“The overwhelming number of sprouts on downed copperpods implies that they are growing back at alarming rates and have the potential to further spread throughout the arboretum.”
The other cause for alarm are the four-legged invaders that are dangerous to the native fauna.
“Invasive mongoose, rats, and cats have led to the decline and extinction of numerous fauna, and show considerable overlap in prey selection, ranging from birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects,” the report states.
But the biggest aim of the researchers is to re-grow native species which proved to be more resilient than non-natives. While native and non-native ran neck and neck for those trees uprooted, the natives were substantially more resistant to snapping caused by extreme winds or damage in general. The report showed that of the non-damaged trees after the storms, 58 percent of the natives were undamaged compared to only 40 percent of the non-natives.
The report can be downloaded here: Tree damage assessment for Magens Bay Arboretum 2019-3.
The report, as well as the discussion at May’s meeting did not provide any definitive time-frame for reopening the arboretum to the public.
The report said the area is currently not safe for visitors, but Platenberg said it could be very soon. She also said someone had marked a path through it with “red tape.”
A short foray into the debris-ridden forest exposes trees that are leaning over and could conceivably lose their footing and fall.
MBA chairwoman Katina Coulianos said the board is generally in favor of the suggestions and vision of the UVI report. But, she said, the board received the 18-page document only shortly before the board meeting, so there is still much to consider.
The UVI students and faculty who put the report together have a 21st Century dream – people enjoying the quiet of nature and all the benefits thereof, while securing the best possible outcome for the forest that must face challenges that Fairchild probably could not have imagined in the 1940s.
“It is important to consider the ecological resilience of the Magens Bay Arboretum because it provides ecosystem goods and services. Ecosystem services are benefits provided by nature that benefit humans,” the report states.