Published by The New York Times, January 8, 2014 by Ashley Winchester
|Paddleboarder Maho Bay St John
(Courtesy of M.K. Smith, NY Times)
Virgin Islands National Park – which already encompasses 60 percent of the tiny Caribbean island of St. John — just got a little bigger.
The beach at Maho Bay and its surrounding hillside recently was sold to the National Park Service in a $2.5 million deal, the Trust for Public Landannounced. It’s the park’s largest addition since 1956, when the philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller, hoping to preserve the island paradise he fell in love with, donated more than 5,000 acres toward its creation.
“It’s a story of perseverance and a vision,” Brion FitzGerald, the park superintendent, said. “To be able to sit on the beach and look up there and not see a lot of development is what makes it worthy of a national park. It ensures that same view for every generation to come.”
It’s hard to imagine a drive along the island’s North Shore Road, which winds through the parcel, without thinking of its iconic canopy.
But that nearly happened. The 74-acre sale is the final piece of a decades-long, 225-acre puzzle to discover the heirs to the estate, preserve it from deforestation and ultimately connect the eastern and western sections of the park. It’s seen as a victory for the island, which depends on its unspoiled reputation to entice tourists.
“It could have been up to 800 single-family homes, condominiums, timeshares that you just don’t want in the heart of a beautiful national park,” said John Garrison, the trust’s senior project manager.
This is a particularly interesting acquisition considering that the adjacent Maho Bay Campground, a pioneering eco-tourism hotel, was sold last year. It closed in May, leaving many locals worried as to what may become of that property.
“The camp was such an important part of the overall economy of St. John,” Mr. Garrison said. “But I don’t think it will be developed in any way that will be detrimental to the park.”
The national park draws more than 600,000 visitors a year in search of its soft, white-sand beaches, trails through unspoiled jungle, and historic sugar mill plantation ruins.
Mr. FitzGerald said rangers are already working with Friends of the National Park in clearing the property’s Maria Hope Trail and improving parking at the beach.