Virgin Islands National Park: Thoughts on an Island

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Virgin Islands National Park is beautiful, unquestionably so. It is also deeply complex, defying expectations of what a National Park is, particularly in such a singular place. It has certainly gotten under my skin, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to write about it.

Since we’ve been back, I’ve told friends and colleagues that the park is a great balance of spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife, and fascinating history. The comparison to another island park dear to my heart, Isle Royale, is apt. That park too has those three elements, but at Virgin Islands they are writ gigantic. So much scenery! So much wildlife! So much history!

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Virgin Islands National Park could be the standard for the evolving mission of the Park Service over the past forty years. Particularly in the eastern United States where pristine landscapes are hard to find, sites that blend cultural and historic landscapes have become the focus of more recently established parks. The site that springs immediately to mind (at the National Park level, as opposed to other NPS holdings) is Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, which protects natural areas, many extensively restored, along with the cultural history of the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath and the various historical communities in the valley.

When Virgin Islands National Park was established in 1956 (after an initial positive assessment from 1938 was shelved by World War II), the Park Service was still years away from its new viewpoint concerning eastern parks. Virgin Islands National Park was intended primarily to preserve the wealth of marine wildlife surrounding St. John as well as the natural beauty of the island (even though its terrestrial ecosystems were far from pristine). Cultural and historical resources and sites were a distant afterthought.

Crucially, the recreational mandate of the Park Service’s mission “to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” was also important in the argument for establishing this park. That Trunk Bay, often listed as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, is owned by the Park Service for the use and enjoyment of all Americans is astounding in an era of rampant beach front development. The increased pace of construction of resorts on inholdings (private property within park boundaries) over the past fifteen years only proves how lucky it is that these lovely beaches were protected in the 1950s.

In February 1956, eleven months before the park would be established, National Geographic did a feature story on the US Virgin Islands, describing a sleepy, sparsely-populated St. John with no paved roads. The article concludes with an interview with Laurance Rockefeller, whose nonprofit Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc. acquired the initial 5,000+ acres on St. John needed to create the park. Rockefeller credits the idea to Frank Stick. Earlier in the decade, Stick, a St. John transplant from the Dakotas via North Carolina’s Outer Banks, showed Rockefeller the 1938 NPS report recommending St. John as a good site for a park. Rockefeller was enthused, and Stick offered 1,400 acres of his own land to get the project started. The St. John Historical Society records (in St. John, Life in Five Quarters) that by the time Virgin Islands National Park was established it had broad support from both island residents and the USVI government (St. John’s senator to the USVI Legislature, Jonathan Sprauve, donated 225 acres of his own property to the park). NPS was careful not to place park boundaries so that they encroached on historical population centers in Cruz Bay, Coral Bay, and the East End. And many on the island assumed that National Park status would bring tourists and, at last, economic prosperity. 

The tourists came. And so did others, who stayed. Today Trunk Bay can see upwards of 1,000 visitors a day, many from cruise ships, a quarter again the island’s residential population of 4,170. (St. John’s population is divided into four districts: Cruz Bay: 2,706; Coral Bay: 634; Central: 779; East End: 51)

I was struck by the island as multifaceted place. Isle Royale and its surrounding waters, for comparison, are entirely owned by the Park Service. The island and the park are completely synonymous. Virgin Islands National Park, on the other hand, comprises only half of St. John although the legislated boundary of the park encompasses two-thirds of the island. So there’s part of the island that is park proper, as much National Park as Yellowstone. Then there’s part of the island that is potential park, property that the park service could purchase and add to the park if it saw fit or had the funding to do so. Then there’s part of the island that is not, and likely never will be, part of the park. Yet there is a very powerful sense of place on St. John that combines all of these areas into one whole. This is made tangible by the fact that it is impossible to drive from Coral Bay to Cruz Bay, the two primary population centers, without passing through the park. St. John is Virgin Islands National Park. Virgin Islands National Park is St. John. St. John is different from the other US Virgin Islands. Virgin Islands National Park is different from the other National Parks.

I wonder how many tourists we passed in Cruz Bay were going to the park, or were going to St. John. When you drive out to the Grand Canyon, you don’t say, “Oh I’m going camping in northern Arizona, gee what’s there to do around here? I think there are some mule tours somewhere.” Although you can’t escape the park when you’re on St. John, I could easily imagine someone saying, “Oh we vacationed on St. John this year. We went to Trunk Bay and Maho Bay, and we took a glass-bottomed boat trip to some coral reefs.” No mention of the park.

In other words, Virgin Islands National Park as destination is subsumed by St. John as destination in ways other parks aren’t. It all leads to a blend of boat culture, Caribbean Creole culture, outdoors culture, “snowbird” culture, ex-pat without being ex-pat culture. I’ll write more about the people we encountered in subsequent posts, but without question, the culture is a unique melting pot on an island that both is and is not a National Park.

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