A large swath of coastal land has been secured by a U.S. conservation group, paving the way for the biggest expansion of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park since it was created more than 50 years ago.
The $19 million deal to purchase the majority of 419 acres of tropical terrain, which features ruins of colonial plantations and is believed to contain pre-Columbian Indian village sites, was reached by The Trust for Public Land after years of negotiations with private owners, the group said Tuesday.
The pristine property on St. John, known as Estate Maho Bay, will be transferred to the National Park Service when federal funds become available in two to three years, said John Garrison, the San Francisco-based non-profit's project manager for the acquisition.
"This untouched land, which many people assumed was part of the park, was very seriously threatened with development," Garrison said in a phone interview from Florida.
Preservationists had feared developers would build on the unprotected parcels, which are located in the middle of the park and had attracted a slew of development proposals over the years.
The land includes more than a quarter-mile of white-sand beaches and rises to almost 1,000 feet in height, said Greg Chelius, director of the trust's Florida and Caribbean program. The parcels will be the biggest addition to the 7,150-acre Virgin Islands National Park since its creation in 1956.
"If this large portion of the watershed was developed it would have changed the entire landscape," said park superintendent Mark Hardgrove.
The turquoise waters of the park on St. John, the smallest island of the U.S. Caribbean territory, feature sea grass beds, green turtles and coral reefs.