Paradise in Peril: Although Conservation Efforts and a Vast National Park Are Helping to Protect Natural Resources on the U.S. Virgin Islands, Increased Tourism, a Building Boom, and Other Pressures Threaten This Still Relatively Unblemished Territory

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John King guided his boat slowly into the quiet waters of Maho Bay one day last July, cut the engine, and pointed to the pristine shoreline and the bays, inlets, and cays that shape St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The view encompassed rocky offshore islets, turquoise-blue waters, beautiful white beaches, and lush, green hillsides. Below the waves lay mile after mile of coral reefs that encircle the island and provide habitats for more than 300 species of fish and other marine creatures. In all, St. John features nearly 750 species of plants, most of them native to the island or at least to the Caribbean, more than 30 species of birds (including three hummingbirds) that breed here; gecko, anole, and iguana lizards; and six species of bats, the only mammals native to the island.

"This is one of the creme de la creme of parks," says King, superintendent of the Virgin Islands National Park. It "rivals the western [U.S. national] parks in terms of scenic beauty and recreation opportunities," he adds. "It's just breathtaking. Whether it's snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, or hiking, you can really get into this park. It's not just a windshield park that you look at as you drive through. It is the crown jewel of the Caribbean."

Often referred to as "America's paradise," St. John and the Virgin Islands National Park are U.S. outposts in the eastern Caribbean. At nine miles long by four miles wide, St. John is the smallest, least populated, and most natural of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands. The other two are St. Thomas and St. Croix. The park protects 9,500 acres of dry tropical forests, cacti-studded points, mangrove swamps, the ruins of sugar plantations, and picture-perfect beaches on St. John, as well as 130 acres on St. Thomas. The park also includes 5,600 acres of coral reefs, sea grasses, and other submerged lands. Together, it comprises more than half of St. John's twenty square miles.

Unfortunately, there is trouble in paradise. St. John and the Virgin Islands National Park are in danger, in part from their own success. Some 1.2 million visitors a year descend on St. John, most from December to June, a lot for a small island. Another 4,200 people live here, up 20 percent since 1990. Together, they tax the park's resources, clog the island's narrow, winding roads, and trample fragile hiking trails, beaches, and coral reefs. During the height of the tourist season, Cinnamon, Trunk, and Hawksnest Bays--three of the most popular spots on St. John--are awash with sunbathers, swimmers, snorkelers, and sailboats.

The growing number of people has sparked a building boom on St. John. An estimated ten to fifteen new vacation houses and villas are under construction at any given time, says Bernard Sheehan, a local realtor and president of the St. John Board of Realtors. With an average selling price approaching $1 million, many of the houses are being built within the park's boundaries on some of the more than 1,700 acres of private land owned by individuals when the park was created in 1956. Some rent for $25,000 a week in season, although others go for as little as $2,000 during summer and fall. The houses dot once-pristine hillsides, breaking up natural panoramas and altering the island's character. Soil eroding from bulldozed hillsides and, especially, unpaved roads is muddying the island's clear waters and contributing to a decline of coral reefs.

Further, a dispute between the U.S. and territorial governments threatens the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, a new protected area created by then-president Bill Clinton, one of his last official acts in January 2001. The monument, a designation that offers almost as much protection as a national park, covers an additional 12,700 acres of submerged land off St. John. At issue is who owns those lands. The Virgin Islands government claims the Territorial Submerged Lands Act of 1974 gave it ownership. But the act exempted submerged lands adjacent to federal lands, such as the already-existing Virgin Island National Park. …