Dec. 28, 2005 — Maybe the next economic boost for the island is not going to come from more jet planes or cruise ships. Perhaps the next economic shot in the arm will be delivered by little fellows who fly on their own power and don't need government subsidies or enticements. That's right, we're talking about birds
and the people who love to watch them.
Carol Cramer-Burke, executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association, said Wednesday that birdwatchers spend millions of dollars in order to observe different bird species abroad.
SEA recently received a boost in its effort to create a sanctuary for birds and a possible destination for birdwatchers when it received a donation of 2.8 acres of Estate Green Cay beachfront property from Peter and Tamara Lowe.
The donation was not imperative in SEA's plans to develop the Southgate Coastal Reserve into a place where birders from around the world will feel safe and welcome, but Cramer-Burke said it simplifies matters. It means that SEA now owns all the beachfront property running from Green Cay Marina to Chenay Beach Resort and also the right-of-ways through the wetlands area of the pond.
The development of Southgate, which was formed in 1999 with the gift of 60 acres from an anonymous donor who later added another 40 acres, is going to be very environmentally friendly, according to Cramer-Burke.
It will include two bird blinds, hiking trails, and a visitors' center. Cramer-Burke said SEA hopes to make Southgate "an example for the community of how economic development and environmental sustainability can work."
The visitors' center will be located at the east end of the property, across from Cheeseburgers in Paradise, at the access road to the beach. The dirt access road at the west end of the property, although SEA has right-of-way there, is owned by Green Cay Marina.
The pond and surrounding wetlands provide habitat for many resident and migrant birds, including several species classified as threatened or endangered. Three species of sea turtles nest on the beach, and all three are classified as threatened or endangered, according to SEA's Web site.
Cramer-Burke said that ruddy ducks were seen last year nesting in the pond — a sight unseen for about 50 years.
Cramer-Burke emphasized that Southgate will be more than just a haven for birds and turtles — that it will be for people, too.
She said Southgate would offer the security and welcoming that no wilderness site on St. Croix offers. She said the visitors' center will be staffed during regular hours and there will be electronic monitoring devices at the bird blinds and elsewhere. The cost of monitoring cameras has dropped dramatically in recent years, making this affordable.
The center will also include classrooms. Cramer-Burke said that education is just one more value that Southgate will bring to St. Croix. She pointed out that during the last two years SEA has conducted a program at the pond entitled Connective Currents. The program discusses area wildlife, the food chain, and the value of water.
Cramer-Burke was quick to add that preservation of the wetlands not only preserves habitat for wildlife but also contributes to the ability of aquifers to regenerate and also acts as a filter for water running into the ocean.
Development of the area is still in the design stage, but Cramer-Burke said SEA hopes to be starting the permit process within three or four months and start construction as soon as that process is complete.
The area has traditionally been used by hikers, birdwatchers and runners looking for a more secluded area to exercise. Campers around Easter time also use it.
Cramer-Burke said SEA was observing what impact the camping is having on the area. She said SEA does not plan to develop a camping area, but does appreciate the value of camping. "It is a great way for residents and their children to learn about nature. They become completely immersed in it for a couple days," Cramer-Burke said.
However, SEA will not be tolerating two uses for the area: ATV racing and the use of the wetlands area for oil changes. In the past, residents have been known to change their oil in the area and then dump it in the wetlands. Another prohibited activity is using the pond area for the running of ATV races.
Cramer-Burke said that SEA members have had discussions with V.I. government officials about possibly getting federal funding for a wind power system on the site, however, she cautioned, "We are going to be looking closely at how this affects the seascape."
Funding for the development is not entirely in place, although, Cramer-Burke said there is reason to believe that it will be. She added that she would like to see the project come together through broad-based community support, instead of just through one individual.
The total cost of the project has yet to be determined. Cramer-Burke said that it was possible that SEA might not be able to afford to do the whole project at one time and that it would have to be done in stages.
About the recent donation of land, she said, "We are overwhelmed with the generosity and environmental commitment of Mr. and Mrs. Lowe. This is a very special piece of property and will be carefully stewarded by SEA."
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