March 25, 2006 – Residents, who for years have pitched tents at Salt River Bay as part of the annual Easter camping tradition, got a small reprieve during a Saturday meeting of the Columbus Landing Site Task Force.
Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett, whose agency co-manages the site with the National Park Service, abandoned the formal agenda midway during the three-hour meeting to announce that overnight camping will be allowed.
"For those who were concerned, you can go back to your people – we are going to allow camping. However, there will be rules to follow," Plaskett said of the tradition by islanders to camp during the Easter weekend at various sites islandwide including Salt River Bay.
Many of the 60 people in attendance at Saturday's meeting erupted in applause, but their cheers soon gave way to disenchantment as their worse fears were realized.
Plaskett, who is also a member of the task force that has been meeting for a year to decide on how best to preserve the site and artifacts that archeologists have discovered in the area now known as Salt River Bay Columbus Landing Site, said it would be the last year that overnight camping would be allowed.
Among the rules, Plaskett said, "fights, altercations or loud, boisterous or drunken activities after dark will be dealt with by DPNR Enforcement officers to the fullest extent of the law."
Other rules deal with cleaning up trash or facing litter laws and preserving the site by disallowing digging and driving on areas where archeologists excavated artifacts. A fine of up to $500 will be assessed for the latter, Plaskett said.
DPNR will also provide port-o-potties from April 10-23 for those who camp in the area.
Those rules, however, don't seem to be written in stone.
"We are trying to protect and preserve the Taino culture," Plaskett said after some in the audience yelled that they were descendants of the Taino Tribe and that their 'tradition' was essentially being taken away with the proposed camping ban next year.
Columbus met the Taino Indians when he landed at the site first in 1492 and on a second trip in 1493, according to Myron Jackson of the V.I. Historic Preservation Office.
Plaskett said that the task force is open to recommendations.
"If you have alternative means of how to protect these artifacts, we would like to hear it. You have a standing invitation to participate in meetings of this task force," he said.
A meeting will be held prior to the Easter holiday, said Anne Golden, a task force member and representative of Sen. Lorraine Berry's Office, but a date was not set.
Golden said that as with all past meetings, the next meeting will be publicized to give residents a chance to attend.
Plaskett said that in the event that residents' recommendations are incorporated into the rules distributed on Saturday, he would meet with residents prior to the Easter holiday to discuss any changes.
"We have to do this together," Plaskett implored. "It's our intention to work with you. I think this is a good compromise."
Plaskett said that the ban on camping, which was referred to as "passive recreation" on Saturday, is not unique to St. Croix.
The governments of nearby Puerto Rico and Dominica have laws protecting areas where artifacts of Taino and Carib Indians, respectively, were found, he said.
Jackson, who gave a slide presentation depicting some of the pottery artifacts that archeologists found on the Salt River Bay Columbus Landing Site, said that the area had also become had become a place "for everyone who wanted to get rid of illicit or illegal trash." He showed photos of trash bins overloaded with household items and areas where junked cars were disposed.
Luz Felix, 68, who attended Saturday's meeting, said that camping has long been an Easter tradition with her family and said that campers were unfairly blamed for leaving trash. Most campers, she said, "pack it in and pack it out."
"I'm camping since my son was 10 days old and he's now 46," the Estate Glynn resident said. "I know they have some people who are very nasty – I have to tell the truth – but not all people are like that. When I camp, I clean up when I leave."
Felix, who said that most people camp at the beach front area, said that she would not let the ban on overnight camping stop her next year.
"We will try and see what happens," she said with shrug. "They can't just close the beach."
National Service Park Superintendent Joel Tutein said that the 600-acre beachfront and water area and the newly acquired Salt River Visitor's Center account for 1,015 acres of land the federal and local government will co-mange. This also includes at 2.5 acre site near the entrance to the beach that will likely be used for infrastructure improvements in what could be carbon copy of the Trunk Bay National Park on St. John.
"At the St. John National Park you have parking, you have rest rooms and you have platforms to put your tents," he said. "So far I don't know of any place in Salt River that is like that. We have to establish the infrastructure and amenities to make this a safe trip" for all who come to the area, Tutein said.
The National Park on St. John also has shower facilities.
Tutein said that even though the Columbus Landing Site is co-managed by the local and federal government, only the local government can enforce rules. It would take a legislative act to grant that authority to federal officials, he said. Thus, if DPNR doesn't have enforcement officers to patrol Salt River Bay on any given day, NPS staff will be able to do so.
Plaskett said Saturday that no money exists currently to fund slots for two additional enforcement officers or to pay for overtime for officers to patrol the area.
Tutein said there remains 30 acres of land that the National Park System would like to acquire at Salt River, including the marina area which is privately owned. Funds are limited to purchase the land, he said, so discussions have centered on other ways, including donations and land exchange, to acquire the remaining parcels.
"Our financial resources are limited so we are looking for donations," Tutein said.
"If you know of anyone who is in debt to the IRS let me know."
Tutein said that the land could be used to pay off the IRS debt or that landowners can either donate land or interest in land to the government. Further, the V.I. government can enter into a land swap or exchange where Salt River Bay landowners would be offered land of equal value at other locations on the island, he said.
Rufino Morales, who also attended Saturday's meeting, has been camping for 15 years and initially was against the proposed camping ban that would be in place starting next year, but he said he sees some advantages in the new rules.
"This is a cultural tradition and I'll be happy when the government fixes up this beach with all the perks every national park has and allow campers to camp with a permit and if you trash the site, you can get fine. I can deal with that," he said.
Easter week camping rules include:
-Day use is encouraged, whereas overnight camping will be allowed this year only. All camp sites are to be occupied by an individual designated as responsible for that campsite, if identification is requested by a DPNR enforcement officer.
-No digging of any kind will be tolerated – no latrines, no fire pits, no trash pits.
-Smoothing of the ground surface is allowed by hand or brush only.
-Campfires will be allowed if placed within a metal container or on bare sand. They are to be supervised and monitored the entire time that either a fire or hot coals are present.
-All trash is to be carried out by individuals or individual families. Anyone caught littering will be cited with a violation of local littering laws. Beach and grounds cleanup
activities are encouraged, even for those areas outside of individual campsites.
-No driving of any motorized vehicles will be allowed on the earthen fort. Anyone riving up onto the fort earthworks will be cited with a violation of the Antiquities Act (Title 29, Chapter 17 of the V.I. Code) and will be subject to a civil fine of up to $500.
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