St. John: A “Magnificent Mid-Caribbean Biotic Bounty”
By Jeff McCord
While most other Caribbean islands suffer from too much human love and the development that goes with it, the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John has achieved a good balance between people and nature. True love brings respectful eco-tourists from all over the world to the island year-after-year.
Harmonious tourism will no doubt remain St. John’s primary “industry” as long as the Virgin Islands National Park preserves 60 percent of the small island’s land and the Coral Reef National Monument protects many of its waters, including much of pristine Coral Bay.
“Within the extremely competitive Caribbean tourism industry, St. John stands out because its natural beauty and cultural resources have, to a large extent, been preserved,” explained Lonnie Willis, President of the St. John Historical Society in a recent letter expressing the Society’s opposition to a proposed environmentally destructive mega-yacht marina in Coral Bay. “The island is perceived to be relatively unspoiled, and as such, draws more than its share of visitors given its small size.”
At present, St. John’s “unspoiled” tourist reputation is accurate. Indeed, since 1976 its’ protected land and waters have been one of only 650 world UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. The reserve includes “steep hillsides, rocky shores, coral and sand beaches, numerous bays, fringing coral reefs, canyons of coral ledges, coral gardens, turtle grass beds, mangrove swamps and natural salt ponds,” the United Nations Site tells us.
Above the island’s reefs, beaches and mangroves, is a substantially protected tropical dry forest, which makes St. John unique within the West Indies. “The Western Hemisphere’s two most endangered biomes are prairies and tropical dry forest,” explains Gary Ray, PhD, a Lynchburg, Virginia-born and raised environmental scientist who has worked to keep St. John in ecological balance for more than twenty years. “The tropical dry forest grows from sea-level up to 1,500 feet, precisely the region in which most Caribbean people build residences, urban centers, farms and resorts. That’s why 95 percent or more of dry forest habitat in this Sea has been converted to other uses.”
Since his first visit to St. John in December, 1987 to research restoring native ecological communities within the National Park, Dr. Ray has fervently worked to preserve and defend the island’s natural splendor. “St. John is a magnificent, well-endowed setting of native botanical, insect, avian and coral diversity,” he says. “Absent outside interference, the island’s natural communities are assured Park protection. The ambitious goal is survival in perpetuity.”
With a Bachelor of Science degree in Botany, a Master’s focusing on plant community ecology and doctorate of environmental science, Dr. Ray views the island through a grand, though specialized, lens. “St. John has one of the greatest extant tropical dry forests in the Caribbean. It has 650 native plants, likely 5,000 or more terrestrial insects, more than 180 species of birds (95 percent of which are native) and six species of bats, the only mammals native to the island.”
The island’s bats include a rare red fruit bat and a fascinating fish eating bat “that will gaff fish using hook-like extensions to digits of their feet.”
As for birds, the island is a winter habitat for scores of species. Noteworthy among these “snow birds” are 15 species of warblers that over-winter on St. John. “Several warbler species wintering here are in serious trouble and some are endangered with extinction throughout their geographic region,” Dr. Ray tells us. Among them is the Cape May Warbler that relies upon low elevation tropical forest.
“St. John’s geographic location in the middle of the Caribbean archipelago makes the tiny island’s abundant biota amazing. Over evolutionary time, the plants and animals that came here originated in both North and South America. Our historically low Native American and European colonial populations coupled with creation of the V.I. National Park have preserved this island eco-system. Even forest areas cleared earlier have come roaring back.”
As a botanist, Dr. Ray is particularly excited about two plant species that have apparently evolved on-site and are known only from St. John. “These two are located nowhere else in the world, as far as we know. I was the second scientist to view one, the Eugenia earhartii, a member of the myrtle family producing flowers and fruit directly from the stem — called ‘califlory.’ Only two populations exist: the core of 953 individuals; and, a more remote population of no more than a few dozen. Few seedlings and saplings have been found. This species is in critical danger and certainly warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act.”
The other endemic St. John plant is Solanum conocarpum of the tomato/potato family. Dr. Ray’s surveys document approximately 200 individuals from populations in eight locations. Sadly, he explains that “all but two populations range from a scant one to a handful of individuals.”
Five populations are protected within the National Park and that includes most individuals. Hermit crabs (called “soldier crabs” on-island), however, consume and destroy the seeds so that few seedlings are found. “The good news is that it is easy to propagate and is becoming a popular ornamental shrub,” Dr. Ray explains hopefully. This species should also be listed as endangered.
“A breakthrough in the study and cataloging of such St. John plant and tree assets occurred in the 1980s when the Director of the prestigious New York Botanical Garden came down with a group of scientists who spent years working here,” Dr. Ray explained. “That was the period in which I first came on-island — initially to work on my doctoral dissertation. Within the Park above Cruz Bay are four UNESCO Biosphere Reserve buildings that house a dormitory, office, auditorium and laboratory. That was my home base.”
Dr. Ray grew 66 plant species in a shade house he constructed near the Biosphere buildings and then focused in-depth on 10 for his thesis. At the same time, a couple acres of trees had been cut-down above Hawksnest beach. The trees turned-out to be favorites of Laurance Rockefeller, the primary founder and benefactor of the Virgin Islands National Park.
“I brashly wrote to Mr. Rockefeller telling him I could ecologically restore the two acres,” Dr. Ray recalls. “I was pleasantly surprised when I received a personal note from him in return telling me to go ahead; also enclosed was a hefty check.”
As for the future, the latest ill-advised St. John commercial scheme promoted by a few off-island developers — the proposed Summer’s End mega-yacht marina in Coral Bay to accommodate motor vessels up to 200-feet long, displacing numerous small sailboats and killing vital sea turtle grasses and other biological assets on the sea bottom — has attracted wide-spread opposition from island and national environmental and conservation groups such as Sylvia Earle’s “Mission Blue” foundation, the Friends of the V.I. National Park and the Island Green Living Association. The huge marina and associated residential development of sensitive on-shore and higher dry tropical forest habitat on private land defines what the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve had in-mind when it warned responsible St. John stakeholders:
“The island now faces serious environmental problems from increasing tourism and residential development, including destruction of wildlife habitats, reef destruction, commercial fishing activities, water as well as land erosion and related sedimentation on coral reefs.”