Diamond Jubilee for a Tropic National Park
by Jeff McCord
For the people of the United States and their often overlooked Territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), December marks the 60th anniversary of a gift of incalculable value. On December 1, 1956 in the small port of Cruz Bay, St. John, a small group of private philanthropists and fare-sighted public officials oversaw the transfer of more than 5,000 acres of mostly undeveloped land on the island of St. John to the federal government to form the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park (VINP).
In today’s political climate in which some elected federal representatives advocate privatization of national parks and recreational areas for economic exploitation, Congressional authorization of a new national park purely for the enjoyment and enlightenment of the public seems impossibly idealistic. Yet, 60 years ago this month, the U.S. Congress and Republican Administration of President Dwight Eisenhower did just that with the help of a billionaire famed for his generosity.
Although the term eco-tourism had yet to be coined, VINP’s founders understood that preservation of exceptional natural resources for the public’s edification would yield substantial economic benefits to local communities.
Nowhere is the value to locals of eco-tourism more striking than in the U.S. Virgin Islands where tourists contribute $1.3 billion annually to the territory’s economy, the VI Consortium says. What attracts them? In addition to a congenial Caribbean climate, the Virgin Islands has more National Park Service (NPS) assets than any other state or territory in the United States, according to Joe Kessler, President of the non-profit Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, the Park’s philanthropic partner that underwrites VINP’s outstanding archeological work, its’ eco-camps and School Kids in the Park activities, among other programs.
“The U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John) have five NPS units: VINP, Coral Reef National Monument, Christiansted National Historic Site, Buck Islands National Monument and Salt River Historic Park and Ecological Reserve. This gives us 4.7 national park units per 100,000 people. In second place is Alaska at 3.7/100,000 people (27 parks, 731,000 people), and Washington DC is third with 3.6/100,000 people (23 parks, 632,000 people).”
To commemorate the VINP’s establishment, the Friends and NPS are erecting a granite monument with the images of Laurance Rockefeller, Virgin Islands Senator Julius Sprauve, Sr. and Mr. Frank Stick. These three formed the “partnership that established Virgin Islands National Park,” a bronze caption explains.
“The founders were adamant that the proposed park should not only benefit the nation as a whole, but should also benefit the locals,” wrote local historian Bruce Schoonover in a paper for the St. John Historical Society. As then USVI Senator Julius Sprauve explained, St. John’s remaining private acreage outside Park boundaries “includes all established communities, ninety percent of all arable land, all present port or boat entries and those which might be used for such purposes in the future.”
Although Laurance Rockefeller is the best known VINP founder, another conservationist, Frank Stick, actually donated more land to the Park. Mr. Stick, a well-known American illustrator and developer, had previously helped establish the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Park before he put together and donated to VINP much of the land on St. John’s Lamshur and Reef Bays.
Beyond giving more than 400 acres for VINP’s creation, Laurance Rockefeller deployed family resources to facilitate the federal legislative and legal package necessary to establish a national park.
In the USVI legislature, St. John Senator Julius Sprauve, Sr. moved an enabling bill setting the territory’s conditions for establishing the VINP. These included improving roads and trails to encourage the anticipated “winter resident trade.” Above all else, VINP would have no entrance fees or restrictions, remaining open to all — visitors and residents alike.
Simply laying the ground work for VINP and Rockefeller’s environmentally sensitive Caneel Bay Resort was a major boost to St. Johnian’s standards of living. Senator Sprauve described the benefits in a March, 1956 letter to the Virgin Islands Daily News editor:
“As the sole result of this generous and far seeing man’s [Rockefeller’s] efforts, our people have enjoyed greater prosperity than at any time in the memory of our oldest inhabitants. And without these efforts, many of our people would have been in a condition approaching destitution and would have been forced to seek precarious employment in distant lands, as has been the unhappy rule in years gone by.”
To some, Senator Sprauve’s comments must have brought to mind the dire circumstances described by President Herbert Hoover’s comments following his 1931 visit to the USVI, as reported by the Virgin Island Daily News:
“[When the United States purchased the Virgin Islands in 1917 for $25 million], we acquired an effective poorhouse, comprising 90 percent of the population. The people cannot be self-supporting either in living or government without the discovery of new methods and resources.”
Establishment of VINP and the flourishing tourism it fosters answers the need for “new methods and resources” called for by President Hoover and foreseen by Senator Sprauve. Each year, the 500,000 plus visitors to the Park generate about $60 million in benefits and at least 781 jobs for the USVI, according to data compiled by the National Park Service.
More important, though, than the economic impact of VINP is the psychic benefits to visitors and residents alike. Unspoiled, beautiful tropic vistas can help heal stressed bodies and minds by providing nature’s respite. Beyond more than a dozen bays and white sand beaches (many palm fringed), VINP offers 26 hiking trails through upland tropical damp forests, low-lying dry woods, walks along dramatic cliffs and promontories and plenty of expansive views of blue and turquoise seas dotted with other green islands and islets.
Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and Truthout.org, among other publications. For more than 20 years, he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels available on Amazon.com: “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI.