STATEMENT OF FRAN P. MAINELLA, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, RECREATION AND PUBLIC LANDS, HOUSE COMMITTEE ON RESOURCES CONCERNING THE VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK AND THE VIRGIN ISLANDS CORAL REEF NATIONAL MONUMENT.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear before your subcommittee at this oversight field hearing on the Virgin Islands National Park and the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument. I am accompanied by John King, Superintendent of Virgin Islands National Park, who also has management responsibility for the newly established Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument.
We appreciate the opportunity that this hearing and visit is providing for all of us to increase our understanding of the Virgin Islands—its people and its resources—and to discuss the particular opportunities and challenges the National Park Service faces in managing the units here that are under our jurisdiction. My statement will focus on the establishment of the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, and an update on the planning process that will set forth future management goals.
As you know, the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument was established on January 17, 2001, by proclamation of President Clinton under the Antiquities Act. Consisting of 12,708 acres of submerged lands off the island of St. John, the monument contains all the elements of a Caribbean tropical marine ecosystem. The designation also enhances the protection of fragile resources included in the Virgin Islands National Park, which Congress established in 1956 and expanded in 1962. Establishment of the monument roughly doubled the amount of acreage in and around St. John that is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.
Since the designation of the Virgin Islands Coral Reef Monument last year, representatives of the Virgin Islands government raised numerous questions and concerns. In fact, on April 9, 2001, the Legislature of the Virgin Islands passed a resolution (No. 1609), expressing concern over the lack of adequate public participation in expansion of the monument, ownership of the submerged lands, the size of the monument, and potential impacts on the fishing and marine industries. I would like to briefly address those concerns.
While we share concerns about the way in which these monuments were created, our job now is to ensure that we develop management plans in an open, inclusive, and comprehensive way. As stated by Secretary Norton on numerous occasions, the planning for the future management of these monuments will be a model of what we call the four C’s: Consultation, Cooperation, and Communication, all in the service of Conservation. The Department of the Interior is committed to management and protection of the monuments consistent with the four C’s and the purposes established in the proclamations. In response to this commitment, we published a notice in the Federal Register on April 24, 2002, initiating a formal scoping period seeking public comment to identify issues to consider and analyze regarding management at the monument designations in the western states. The Department is currently reviewing the public comments. After reviewing all the comments on each monument, I believe most of the issues can be addressed through the management planning process, which will also include comprehensive public input. With regard to the monuments we are discussing today, we anticipate a similar public review process as soon as the issue of submerged lands ownership is resolved.
We agree that federal ownership or control of the land is necessary for an area to be designated as a national monument under the Antiquities Act. The General Accounting
Office (GAO), at the request of Delegate Christian-Christensen, has reviewed the question of federal ownership or control of the submerged lands in the expansion of Buck Island Reef National Monument. We understand that GAO will issue its opinion shortly.
As to the size of the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, the Clinton Administration determined that 12,708 acres was the smallest area needed to ensure the proper care and management of the resources to be protected and their long-term sustainability. It is large enough to provide a fish nursery and, in theory, should help assure that fishing remains viable as an industry and a recreational activity here.
Although the loss of fishing territory could have an impact on the industry, we believe that it should be offset by the regeneration of stocks of fish that should occur from the enhancement of the fish nurseries made possible by the designation. Like many coral reef environments throughout the world, the Virgin Islands tropical marine ecosystem is under stress. Damage has been caused over the years from a variety of both natural forces and human activities. The marine ecosystem has been harmed by hurricanes, diseases of various kinds, and coral predators. Activities that contribute to the degradation of these marine resources include sediment runoff from incompatible land-use and development practices, nutrient input from sewage, poaching, overfishing, and improper fishing, boating, and diving practices.
Research over a long period of time has provided evidence that fish are not only smaller than in the past, but also that there has been a serial depletion of certain species, including the commercial extinction of the Nassau Grouper and Goliath Grouper. In addition, twenty years of data collection within and around Virgin Islands National Park show a marked decrease in the amount of sea grass beds, mangroves, and live coral. Research has also shown little to no recovery on damaged coral reefs. These conditions, and the
prediction of continued decline, are what led to the establishment of the monument.
Another critical factor in the decision to designate the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, as well as expand the Buck Island Reef National Monument, was their potential to improve the Virgin Islands economy. Tourism is the mainstay of the economy here, and the national park units on both St. John and St. Croix contribute significantly to the tourism revenues generated on those islands. By enhancing and providing more long-term protection for the spectacular resources managed by the National Park Service that lure tourists to the Virgin Islands, the monument designations were seen by the Clinton Administration as an important way to help improve and sustain the Virgin Islands’ economy.
In summary, the designation of the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument should provide for a recovery of coral reefs and associated habitats, facilitate an increase in the abundance of reef fish, sustain traditional cultural fishing practices in surrounding waters, enhance the quality of the visitor experience to the Virgin Islands, and contribute to economic growth from tourism. As stated earlier, the National Park Service has been preparing to undertake the planning process that will set forth the future management and use of this area, and we look forward to working collaboratively with the territorial government, our gateway communities, and other interested stakeholders in this endeavor.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my remarks. Superintendent King and I will be happy to answer any questions you or your colleagues may have.