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Caribbean sea park a lesson in balance

Managing the Virgin Islands National Park is a lesson in balancing human desire and nature's needs, especially those tied to the ocean.
Rafe Boulon, the chief of resources management for Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John, points to Trunk Bay, a popular beach his family once owned and where he was born.
Rafe Boulon, the chief of resources management for Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John, points to Trunk Bay, a popular beach his family once owned and where he was born.John Heilprin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rafe Boulon helps visitors enjoy the beaches and forests of Virgin Islands National Park. He also deals with the consequences: marine pollution, overfishing and too many people.

As the park’s chief resources manager, Boulon maintains roads and trails for traffic, as well as to keep people in the right places. He sets buoys to guide yachts and ferry boats to port, avoiding seagrass beds and coral reefs.

“This is what the park has sort of selected as its sacrificial beach,” he says, gazing at his birthplace, Trunk Bay, once owned by his family. “It’s amazing. You put a concrete strip in the sand, and that’s where everybody walks. They don’t drift off too much.”

“Short of a chain-link fence around that reef,” he said, pointing at one damaged by two boats, “I don’t think we’re going to keep people from running into it.”

Balancing people
It’s a balancing act for Boulon and others managing the 14,689-acre park, one-third of which is under water. So too for a presidential commission that is reviewing, for the first time in 35 years, the nation’s ocean policies. It is trying to figure out how to get the most recreational and economic benefit without hurting waterways.

Its report, capping three years of work, was released Tuesday. The previous commission, in 1969, led to the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and important laws for managing coasts and fisheries.

** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, APRIL 18 AND THEREAFTER ** Swimmers don snorkeling gear, preparing to start on April 4 the National Park Service's only underwater snorkeling \"trail\" at Trunk Bay in Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John. The 650-foot trail of markers guides snorkelers past coral reefs along the edge of a small island. Buoys in the distance warn boats from entering the bay, dropping anchor or running aground on the reefs and seagrass beds. (AP Photo/John Heilprin)John Heilprin / AP

“It’s a constant daily fight. You’re tugged every which way,” Boulon said. “We could create a parking lot out of the whole island, and it probably still wouldn’t be enough. You know, ’You build it, and they will come.’"

Build it too much and there no longer is as much reason to come. Already 1 million people a year visit 9-mile-long St. John — one of three islands that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands — and the park that covers three-fifths of it.

“We talk about managing resources, but that’s really managing people, because people are what are producing the impacts,” Boulon said. “We’re being loved to death. ... Everyone wants to come here, see it and appreciate it, not realizing each one of them is having an impact.”

Last June, a private commission funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a $4 billion foundation, concluded that ocean life off U.S. coasts needs more government oversight, ecosystem managers and marine reserves protected like wilderness is.

Park treasures, history
On the surface, Virgin Islands National Park is a place where trouble itself, or at the least the idea of it, seems a world away. Trunk Bay is typically deserted early mornings and nights, off-limits to mansions, resort hotels and cruise ships.

Coral reefs tint the blue-green waters. Mangrove trees shade the picture-perfect white sands. Snorkelers ply an underwater trail of markers at Trunk Bay that instructs: “Drift slowly. Let the fish get used to your presence and more will appear.”

Boulon’s grandfather paid $5,000 in 1926 for the crescent-shaped bay. The family later sold 100 acres to philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller, who donated it with thousands more acres to the federal government. The park was created in 1956, four years after Boulon was born.

“Various hotels wanted to buy Trunk Bay, probably for a lot more money than he got from Laurance Rockefeller, but he didn’t want to see that happen. So he took a much smaller amount of money, so our neighborhood would be protected,” Boulon said.

The home he was born in is now a ranger residence. Boulon lives nearby on the family’s remaining three acres and private beach.

Aside from new roads and home-building, the island’s development includes hiker trails and public beaches.

Cruise ship trend
More cruise ships are calling. Boulon works to facilitate the visits, but also to prevent chemicals and silt from turning bays brown or coral diseases forming from bacteria, viruses, warm water and pollutants.

Nationwide, reducing these and other effects of land use on coastal areas will require new ways of governing, said Conrad Lautenbacher, the retired vice admiral who heads NOAA.

“It’s almost like the evolution of laws for land use,” Lautenbacher said. “When people came to this country, and they were done farming on the East Coast, they moved to the middle of the country. When they were done there, they kept moving. Eventually, we had to have some sort of rules set up so they would treat natural resources with some respect.”