A total of 325 acres in the White Cliffs area of VINP, above, are off-limits until further notice.
Eugenia earhartii, a rare plant found only on St. John will be evaluated.
When V.I. National Park officials made the decision to close 325 acres of parkland recently in order to protect an endemic and rare shrub species only found within park boundaries, they didn’t make the decision lightly, explained VINP Acting Superintendent Mike Anderson.
“We considered all other alternatives to closing the area, as we’re required to do under the regulations,” said Anderson. “For example, we looked at the possibility of issuing permits for individuals to go into the area or putting enclosures around the plants, but until we know where the plants are and their numbers, we had to close the area.”
Concern over the rare plant, Eugenia earhartii, prompted the closure of 325 acres in the remote White Cliff area of VINP located near the Reef Bay, Lameshur and Europa Trails, explained Anderson. (See related story on page 17). An illegal trail was continually cleared through the White Cliffs area, disturbing a population of the Eugenia earhartii, despite ongoing attempts to block access, he said.
“Someone cut a trail down through the middle of this population of rare and endemic plants,” he said. “Unfortunately this species only grows a half a millimeter a year. So even those small cuttings at the base could take decades for the plant to recover in height.”
“Last year a ranger tried to disguise the trail and put brush across it,” said Anderson. “Someone came by and removed the brush and flagged the trail. Later, the ranger kept taking down the flags and they kept being put back up.”
The VINP ranger even tried to close the trail, Anderson added.
“The ranger put up a ‘closed’ sign which was vandalized, broken in two and thrown aside,” said the VINP Acting Superintendent. “At the time we didn’t want to draw attention to this rare plant species, but when we confirmed, and I myself saw this, that they were cutting right through the middle of this we had no choice but to close the area until we can do some research.”
Anderson himself toured the area and was convinced it needed to be closed, he explained.
“I walked with the resource staff to look first-hand at the damage that had been done and the condition of the unauthorized trail and I looked at safety,” he said. “I looked at relying on the experts as far as this plant that is endemic to St. John and found only within the park. That is a population of those plants that needs to be protected.”
The habitat of the plant in question was untouched before this illegal trail was cut, according to local botanist Gary Ray, who has studied the species for years.
“Its habitat was completely pristine prior to the illegal cutting of a trail,” said Ray. “The trail cut threw two populations harboring perhaps 95 percent of the species global numbers. For a perspective, imagine 650 plant species native to this island — only two species are endemic.”
“This one is the most threatened with extinction,” Ray said. “My new burden is to clean up weeds, replace shrubs these vandals destroyed, and watch for a long list of new disturbance problems.”
By clearing this illegal trail, the plants were also made vulnerable to a host of exotic and feral animals, Ray added.
“When trails are built, animals use them,” he said. “White-tailed deer and goats, key habitat destruction factors, are all over these populations now. There are other problems, including rats, and this is not a simple issue.”
“There is a list of rare plants in this habitat, not just one plant species,” Ray said. “The remainder of our native forest has been compromised by human activities over the years, and this is one of the last relicts of primordial forests. Now, even this is getting hammered by the selfishly motivated.”
Closing the area will allow Ray and other scientists to study the plant and identify all other rare species in the area, Anderson explained.
The Acting VINP Superintendent, however, could not estimate for how long the area would be closed to the public.
“It’s going to take some time to do the research,” he said. “Once we get more information we will be able to determine how long the area will remain closed. It’s a temporary closure, but until I get that information, I can’t say how temporary is temporary.”
VINP officials will not outline the area with “Closed” signs, but will post several signs along closed land and will monitor the area, Anderson added.
“It’s a large geographic area so we won’t be putting up signs in sight of distance along the entire length,” he said. “We will post signs at access points leading to the closed area and we have a ranger who lives out there who will be monitoring. We will also have researchers out there.”
VINP officials will also look into removing feral and exotic animals from the White Cliff area, Anderson explained.
“Our biologist will be removing any feral animals or exotic animals where there is heavy grazing,” said the Acting VINP Superintendent. “I think it’s either deer or goats, but we’ll take a look at that.”
The issue is simply about protecting resources, according to Anderson and Ray.
“We are about preserving and protecting park resources; that is our main objective,” said Anderson.
“The core problem is that thousands of trees have been cut by these people without authorization — directing all into habitat that is highly sensitive and already compromised,” said Ray. “It is completely within the charter of our National Parks to protect rare habitats as they see fit with their own or hired expertise. Government by law is about both rights and responsibilities.”
“You cannot complain that the NPS is unfairly keeping you out of sensitive areas after you pushed beyond your legal rights and violated federal law by cutting thousands of plants,” Ray said. “This is the most serious breach of land ethics I have ever witnessed on this island.”