The growth in visitors to the country's national parks in recent years is both a blessing and a challenge, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy told the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park at the group's annual meeting Sunday, Jan. 16. And, he said, a key to coping with the challenges of preserving the parks' natural beauty is volunteer support.
In a nation of a quarter billion people, the Democratic senator from Vermont said, Americans can enjoy the "great heritage of this country" from the Virgin Islands all the way to Alaska through its national parks. The park system is one of the nation's major tourist attractions, he noted, and the number of annual visitors has increased by 40 million over the past several years.
Bringing the topic home, he added, "The Virgin Islands National Park only remains a viable park when volunteers get involved."
Park Supt. Russell Berry Jr. shared the proof in the pudding later, in his State of the Park address: a $1.5 million increase in federal funding that means the park's base operating funds will increase to $4.4 million from $2.9 million over the next two years. He said part of the new funding will be used to add an engineer and an archeologist to his staff.
After the meeting, Berry said lobbying by the Friends of the Park to sympathetic members of Congress helped to secure the $1.5 million. He said that as park superintendent he cannot petition Congress for more funds, but private citizens and citizen groups such at the Friends of the Park are able to do so.
Berry also reported that the park's experimental admission fee program brought in $1 million over the last 18 months and described progress made in ongoing park programs.
About 200 members of the Friends group were on hand at T'ree Lizards Restaurant to hear Leahy deliver the keynote address at the meeting. Friends president John Garrison introduced the senator as a "champion" of the Virgin Islands park.
The senator described himself as a frequent visitor with a deep appreciation for St. John's natural beauty. "This is one of the most beautiful spots anywhere in the world," he said in an interview afterward, "but I also know how fragile it is. I've been coming here for over a quarter of a century, and I see the changes and I see what you have to do."
In the interview, Leahy called Garrison a champion in his own right, spearheading efforts to tune Washington's ear to the needs and the opportunities within the V.I. National Park.
The keynote address was billed as a talk on public-private partnerships. In his remarks, Leahy cited philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller, whose initial donation of 5,000 acres of land on St. John to the National Park Service was the impetus for creating the park in 1956. He also said volunteer organizations such as the Friends have an important role to play in partnership with the federal government that manages the park system.
In the interview after the meeting, Berry said this year's appropriation increase will go toward salaries. "We have a park engineer that's coming next week," he said. "We have more interpreters to give more guided walks and talks. We're having more rangers. We're basically filling in the spots that have been vacant for the past 10 years because of the funding drifting away from us." Next year's appropriation, he said, will go tward making up a shortage of materials and supplies used in daily functions.
Like the V.I. government, Berry said, the V.I. National Park allocates most of its budget – – about 92 percent — for personnel costs. "That needs to be at about 70 percent in order to buy the supplies and materials you need to get the job done," he said.
In his address he also outlined improvements under way that are utilizing funds collected as fees at Trunk Bay beach and the Annaberg Plantation and described plans to improve Hawksnest Bay beach.
Last year, Berry noted, the Friends raised funds to support the archaeological dig under way at Cinnamon Bay. He said the group's educational outreach programs attracted a continual flow of student visitors from St. Thomas and St. John to the excavation site.
He also credited the group's efforts toward helping the park create long-term marine and commercial use management plans. Park officials have been conducting a series of "scoping" meetings to get public input on the proposed plans.


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