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HomeNewsLocal newsStop Park Expansion, Plaskett Urges; Land Swap Deadline Stretches

Stop Park Expansion, Plaskett Urges; Land Swap Deadline Stretches

Whistling Cay (right) as seen from above Francis Bay, St. John. (Amy H. Roberts photo)

Congressional Delegate Stacey Plaskett wants to stop any potential expansion of St. John’s Virgin Islands National Park, saying Tuesday that conservation efforts were squeezing out human residents.

Plaskett asked the House Committee on Natural Resources on April 28 to block any increase in the park’s acreage, calling “well-intentioned” natural habitat preservation “neo-colonial Bourgeois wildlife ideals.”

“The Virgin Islands National Park boundary encompasses nearly two-thirds of St. John. Within the park boundary, there is both federally owned and privately-owned land. There is a finite amount of land for the residents of St. John, who are already confronting housing shortages,” Plaskett said in a written statement.

The exact wording of her bill had not been published by Tuesday afternoon but Plaskett said it allowed the park to accept land donations, as it has for generations, but in doing so must sell equal acreage. If the park participates in a land exchange and the value of the federal land is lower than the non-federal land, the Park Service must equalize the transfer with a cash payment, she said.

This is precisely the process underway with a proposed swap of an uninhabited St. John cay for a new school site.

Virgin Islanders were given more time this week to tell local and federal officials their opinions on a proposed St. John land swap with National Park Service.

Some 400 people had already commented on the plan since April 2022. The National Park Service said the volume of responses prompted the 45 day public comment period extension to June 9 from the original March 15 deadline.

On Monday, Plaskett asked Virgin Islanders to speak out on the islet-for-school land swap.

“I highly encourage individuals who have not previously submitted comments to do so. Those who submitted comments previously are not being asked to resubmit, as those comments have been heard and considered,” Plaskett said in a written statement, adding that the multitude of comments made already have been “invaluable to the process.”

While most agree the school is needed, not everyone thinks the Catherineberg Estate area chosen is right.

Park Service officials said the Service had been in discussions with the Virgin Islands government about how to improve public education in St. John for decades before the hurricanes of 2017 severely damaged the island’s only public elementary and middle school, the Julius E. Sprauve School. With St. John students needing to ride ferries daily to attend school in St. Thomas, the park and the government expedited the land exchange idea in 2019, reaching a preliminary agreement in 2020 and completing an environmental assessment in 2022.

Mark A. Foust, the National Parks Service’s regional director, wrote in an announcement of the deadline extension that the land exchange appeared to benefit both natural preservation efforts and St. John’s children — using the initials GVI for government of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“The exchange is necessary to benefit the Park by preserving an undeveloped dry tropical forest and to assist GVI in support of its primary educational needs by providing a suitable location for a future school on the island that was diminished substantially by hurricane damage years ago. Currently, students must commute by boat each day or relocate to St. Thomas during the school year to complete a public high school education,” Foust wrote.

But, simple as it may seem, it isn’t an easy swap.

The Park Service has to notify Congress anytime it exchanges land valued at more than $1 million. The undeveloped 11 acres in Catherineberg, St. John, where the U.S. Virgin Islands government wants to put the school, has been appraised at $1.2 million, according to the Park Service. In exchange, the USVI government will give the park Whistling Cay — valued at $1.4 million.

Whistling Cay sits about 300 yards off Mary’s Point, right along the British Virgin Islands border, separated from St. John by a shallow passage popular with snorkelers and divers. The 19-acre islet has a gravel beach and thick vegetation.

Exact details on the plan can be found here at the Federal Register’s website.

Comments can be filed at the planning website: www.parkplanning.nps.gov/stjohnlandexchange or emailed to russell_webb@nps.gov, or mailed to Land Resources Program Office — National Park Service, 2975 Horseshoe Dr. S., Suite 800, Naples, Fla. 34104, or dropped off in person at the park’s visitor center between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.

 

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