Sept. 25, 2001 — While the U.S. General Accounting Office continues to review the legality of recently designated national monuments in the territory, the National Park Service is proceeding with the development of interim management plans for the areas.
Last month, Delegate Donna Christian Christensen said she had spoken with the GAO officials who are charged with issuing a legal opinion on the disagreement over ownership of the submerged monument lands, which were established in the waning days of the Clinton administration to protect reefs and fisheries. Christensen said that an answer will come sometime in October.
In the meantime, Joel Tutein, superintendent of the National Park Service units on St. Croix, said that his staff has sent interim management plans to NPS administrators on the mainland for approval. NPS authorities at the V.I. National Park on St. John have done the same thing.
In the last days of his administration, President Bill Clinton created the 12,700-acre V.I. Coral Reef National Monument off St. John and expanded the Buck Island Reef National Monument off St. Croix by 18,000 acres. The designation and expansion ban fishing, anchoring and other activities in the area in order to conserve and restore reef ecosystems and marine life. This has raised the ire of local politicians who claim the submerged lands in question belong to the people of the Virgin Islands.
According to Clinton's proclamation, the National Park Service has two years to prepare a management plan for Buck Island and three years to do so for the St. John monument.
Before that, however, Tutein said, interim plans will be reviewed by NPS officials and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and then placed in the National Register. The plans will be in effect during a 30-day public comment period and then "stay in place as interim regulations until a management plan is completed," Tutein said.
The regulations will address prohibitions in the monument areas of such things as anchoring, fishing and collecting shells or artifacts, Tutein said.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has asked that U.S. Interior Secretary Gail Norton, who oversees the National Park Service, not declare the monuments valid, because of what he termed the "questionable" manner in which her predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, delineated the submerged lands. Also to be resolved is the debate over who owns the areas in question.
According to former V.I. senator Virdin Brown, who now chairs the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council, all submerged lands within three miles of the territory's land masses were transferred to the Virgin Islands government by an act of Congress in 1974. Thus, he said, only that body can change the ownership of the lands.
Tutein, meanwhile, said that meeting the management plan timeline established in the monument designations will be difficult, even with the $350,000 each earmarked for the Buck Island and St. John efforts.
"The clock has been ticking" since the designations were declared, Tutein said. "I hope to start the general management plan by the end of the calendar year." Even so, he said, he will be "surprised if we can get through the process in two years."
If the GAO review of the ownership issue gives the NPS the go-ahead, Norton has said, local residents will be able to voice any concerns during the management plan development process, which will entail town meetings and public comment periods. Tutein said the process will include the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement.
"The general management plan process itself calls for all stakeholders to comment on the plan," Tutein said.
At the V.I. National Park on St. John, Supt. John King also made it clear it would take congressional legislation to change the parameters of the designation. He has said the designation around St. John means no fishing in the waters of the Coral Reef National Monument except for bait fishing in Hurricane Hole and hard-nose fishing on the south shore of St. John, both by permit.
No anchoring will be allowed, King said, but moorings will be installed in Hurricane Hole for hurricane damage mitigation and in areas within the monument off St. John's south shore for recreational use.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here