Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt will be on St. Croix early next month for the third coral reef conference, following the signing of a controversial memorandum of understanding between the V.I. government and the Department of Interior.
Babbitt will co-chair the third meeting of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, scheduled for Nov. 2 and 3 at the Tamarind Reef Hotel. The reef task force was created under President Clinton in 1998 to ensure that coral reef ecosystems are protected and for federal agencies to develop plans to restore damaged reefs, both domestically and internationally.
"The Virgin Islands’ spectacular coral reefs are as important to the economy above the waters as they are to the health of underwater environment," Babbitt said. "They are responsible for building and protecting the beautiful beaches that attract millions of tourists each year, sustaining fisheries and saving countless human lives and dollars by protecting the islands from catastrophic hurricane damage."
Both Gov. Charles Turnbull and Babbitt were widely criticized in the territory for the memorandum of understanding that seeks to guide the V.I. government out of its $1 billion-plus debt. Critics of the document contend that its terms put Interior in the position of being a de facto control board over the Virgin Islands, something department officials say is untrue.
Along with mandating that the V.I. government cut its budget by reducing payroll, the memorandum calls for the restructuring of the territory’s public labor laws, including Act No. 4440, to conform with the federal public labor relations law, by June 30, 2000. That provision has raised the fury of union leaders and others.
Also in the memorandum, however, are provisions to preserve the islands’ natural and cultural resources, particularly the coral reef ecosystem. The memorandum recognizes the economic value of the territory’s reefs as part of a sustainable tourism program.
A key element of the memorandum is the establishment of the Virgin Islands Conservation Trust. According to the memorandum, the trust would maintain and manage resources by creating a network of local parks and recreation trails.
Questions to Interior officials regarding specifics of the memorandum’s natural resources provisions, including funding and its impact on local resource management, have not been immediately answered.
Also unclear is Babbitt’s position on Texas-based Beal Aerospace’s proposal to build a 320,000-square-foot rocket assembly plant just onshore of a major barrier reef on St. Croix’s Great Pond Bay. The proposal is currently tied up in Territorial Court by island residents who are disputing property ownership issues. The St. Croix Environmental Association has also vowed to fight the project in court due to, among other issues, its possible impact on the reef.
An Interior official who wished to remain anonymous did say that Beal has not provided the department or any of its agencies, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, with plans regarding the proposed development. The official said that alone didn’t reflect well on the company.
Meanwhile, it is expected that Babbitt and Dr. James Baker, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will sign a memorandum of understanding before the reef conference that will establish a marine research laboratory on St. Croix through a consortium of universities.
The West Indies Laboratory on St. Croix’s northeast shore was closed in 1989 after sustaining major damage in Hurricane Hugo. According to NOAA’s Roger Griffith, the lab contributed greatly to understanding the threats coral reef ecosystems face. The proposed lab would involve the University of the Virgin Islands, Rutgers University, the University of North Carolina – Wilmington and the University of South Carolina.
Baker said the Coral Reef Task Force is important because many of the world’s reef systems are in danger.
"Coral reefs are the rain forests of the sea" with nearly a million species of marine life, he said. "They are also the foundation of important tourism and fisheries economies. However, it is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s coral reefs are seriously threatened, and that is why this meeting and initiative are so important."


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