Senators to lobby NPS to reconsider location of marine research center

February 5, 2016


Joel Tutein, National Park Service superintendent, right, testifies during a Senate Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection meeting Thursday on St. Croix. Margaret Boller, of the Coalition to Save Salt River Bay, Jill Updyke, owner of Virgin Kayak, and Alexandria Ham, Judith’s Fancy Owners’ Association board member, also are pictured left to right.

Tom Eader – Bureau Chief

ST. CROIX – After hearing passionate testimony on Thursday from eight environmentalists, residents and kayak tour operators about the potential threat a project to build a Marine Research and Education Center would have on the bioluminescent bay, senators took a step to lobby the federal government to reconsider the proposed site location.

The National Park Service is moving forward with plans than began in 1999 to construct the marine center on a peninsula in Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve located next to Mangrove Lagoon, also known as bio bay.

The bio bay, which was created artificially from a failed hotel and marina development in the 1970s prior to Salt River Bay’s designation as a national park, is the home of the bioluminescent dinoflagellate species that creates a green glow in the water upon contact. The abandoned hotel was demolished, but remnants remain. The site of the abandoned hotel is where NPS plans to build its marine research center.

Motion to lobby NPS:

Sen. Terrence Nelson made a motion to pass a resolution via VI Delegate to Congress Stacy Plaskett to ask NPS officials in Washington, D.C. to halt the planned project and reconsider the site location. It was approved by all four members of the Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection who were still present during roll call, which took place at the end of a daylong meeting.

“You are here in the territory to protect our green space.” Nelson told the NPS officials who testified. “You’re doing it through the federal government, but it’s our green space.”

At-Large Sen. Almando Liburd, who indicated the bio bay discussion was the beginning of a greater discussion lawmakers need to have with NPS officials, was successful at amending Nelson’s motion to also have Plaskett request a meeting with the NPS officials who oversee the superintendents that operate in the Virgin Islands to discuss other issues.

Sen. Sammuel Sanes, committee chair, pointed out after the motion passed that a resolution isn’t a legally-binding document.

“We can put it together and present it and nothing can happen, and we have to be realistic on that, but I believe by talking to the right people we can at least come to some type of an agreement.” He said. “Hopefully in the near future we will come back and address this matter again and we’re going to have solutions.”

Testifiers call for action:

In addition to the testifiers who pleaded with the senators to take action to prevent development from taking place near the bio bay, the senators also heard testimony from two NPS officials, representatives from the University of the Virgin Islands and VI National Guard, and two officials from the VI Department of Planning and Natural Resources.

Margaret Boller, of the Coalition to Save Salt River Bay, said the issue is “we want our park back.”

She said it needs to be protected from those who are “pretending to be protecting it.” Construction of the marine research center will destroy history, she said.

“Developing in floodplains, wetlands and protected coastal areas is forbidden unless there are no other alternatives,” she said. “This is not the case for the MREC. There are many viable alternatives, but the NPS refuses to consider them.”

Michael Baron, VI Conservation Society vice president, suggested to senators that NPS could fulfill all the requirements of the proposed marine research and educational center by utilizing the existing Visitor Center.

NPS plans:

NPS Superintendent Joel Tutein said, however, that the Visitor Center was included as an alternate site in an environmental assessment but it was ruled out because NPS wants to develop the MREC closer to the coastline.

“That property is 450 feet above sea level and it isn’t conducive for what we envision as a Marine Research and Education Center,” he said. Sen. Janette Millin Young asked Tutein if NPS has another location in mind.

“No.” he said. “This is it.”

Kenneth Haines, St. Croix Environmental Association vice chair, said SEA contracted a specialist in the study of bio bays in 2013 to assist SEA in doing a study on the bio bay. He read into the record testimony from the specialist, Michael Latz.

Latz, a marine biologist, noted that a management plan should be developed for the bio bay to promote ecosystem health and maintain its bright bioluminescence. He noted development in the vicinity of the bio bay should be minimized because of potential environmental impacts.

Mark Bras, director of community relations and research for the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust, testified about the Puerto Mosquito bio bay on Vieques, Puerto Rico, which he said attracts about 500 visitors per night during high season, resulting in $4 million a year in income from the tour companies. He said the artificially made bio bay in Salt River Bay is a plus for researchers. He said the best thing to do is leave it alone.

“You have to designate this bay as soon as possible as a bioluminescent bay.” He said. “This is something you should be showcasing to the world.”

Bras said development around the bio bay on Vieques is the Puerto Rican government’s biggest concern. He said an abandoned school was refurbished to conduct research, noting his government would have never built a research center next to the bio bay.

“You are standing in a place where you have a great project idea in the wrong place.” He said. “All you have to do is relocate it to a place where it will benefit everybody.”

Outlook for businesses:

Sen. Kurt Vialet asked NPS if any part of its study encouraged building so close to the bio bay. Zandy Hillis-Starr, NPS chief of resource management, said there was no recommendation against it. “All of our actions have actually been to improve the conditions around the bay to support the continuation of the bioluminescence,” she said.

Vailet said, however, that improving the area can’t be by building a structure or opening the road that has been closed for years. He said the initial project that resulted in the abandoned hotel created a “rare opportunity” in the Virgin Islands.

“If we’re going to attempt to damage that site, then St. Croix really isn’t ready.” He said. “We have a tourist destination. People come from all over the world to go there.”

Vialet noted four kayak tours operators would be at risk if construction of the marine research center at the proposed site damages the bio bay. He also noted the existing Visitor Center could be used as an alternative site.

Jill Updyke, owner of Virgin Kayak, said she and her husband own one of four kayak companies that give tours of the bio bay. She said visitors come to St. Croix specifically to visit the bio bay.

“Tourists don’t want to come all the way down to the Virgin Islands and not get to do this.” She said. “If the bio bay, and the land around it, is to go unprotected and get developed by the National Park Service, I am confident that Virgin Kayak and the three other outfitters in Salt River will go out of business.”