Friends of Virgin Islands National Park is committed to finding a solution for the Caneel Bay property that recognizes the St. John and St. Thomas communities as a voice in the planning and negotiating for the future lease and/or concession agreements; and as Laurance Rockefeller intended with the extinguishment of the RUE in 2023, that any negotiated lease or concession agreements provide the St. John community and visitors greater access to the property as part of our Virgin Islands National Park.

In line with that commitment, the following letter dated August 12, 2020, from Andrew Rutnik, Board Chair of the Friends, and Todd Sampsell, President of Friends, was sent to the Secretary David Bernhardt at the Department of the Interior outlining the Friends position on the future of Caneel and requesting:

1) Extinguishment of the RUE for CBIA's failure to preserve and maintain the property.

2) Commencement of a new NEPA process that will provide the St. John and larger Virgin Islands' community with a voice in the future development and management of Caneel Bay property.

3) Immediately resume full characterization of the environmental contamination of the property leading to a remediation plan that holds responsible parties accountable.

 

August 12, 2020

 

Secretary David Bernhardt

Department of the Interior

1849 C Street, N.W.

Washington DC 20240

 

RE: Caneel Bay Resort and Properties, St. John, United State Virgin Islands

 

Dear Secretary Bernhardt:

As Board Chair and President of the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, (Friends) we are writing you on behalf of our Board of Directors, 8,000 members and our Virgin Islands community, as well as all Americans who have an ownership stake in our national parks.

As you are aware, Hurricanes Irma and Maria, both category 5 storms, severely impacted the Virgin Islands in September 2017. These storms destroyed infrastructure, schools, businesses and homes, many of which have yet to be rebuilt 3 years later. Our Virgin Islands economy has struggled to rebound. During this time, the Virgin Islands has been susceptible to an influx of wealth that seeks to capitalize on post-storm opportunities. The disparity between native and long-time Virgin Island residents and this new wealth is helping to establish St. John in particular as a party destination with little regard for the island’s rich history, heritage and natural resources. Virgin Islands National Park is only now beginning to see federal hurricane relief funding. Caneel Bay Resort, an important contributor to the Virgin Islands, and in particular a more stable St. John economy, was destroyed in the storms. To date, CBI Acquisitions, LLC, (CBIA) has made no attempts to rebuild Caneel Bay despite receiving tens of millions of dollars in insurance payments as a result of the storm damage. In fact, during the time since the storms, leadership at CBIA publicly disparaged the St. John community and continued to seek an extension of the Retained Use Estate (RUE), put in place for 40 years by philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller, after establishment of Virgin Islands National Park in 1956 and following the sale of his Caneel Bay Resort in 1983. Additionally, CBIA has sought to be held harmless from liability for environmental contamination that exists on the Caneel Bay property, part of Virgin Islands National Park. 

In 2012, the Department of Interior, through the National Park Service, began a NEPA process for the Caneel Bay property in order to extinguish the RUE and establish a non-competitive 40 year lease with CBIA. This lease arrangement was made possible by 2010 legislation introduced by then VI Delegate to Congress, Donna Christensen. Among other things, the legislation ensured the natural and cultural resources of the national park property would have better oversight by NPS staff and be better protected. Negotiations on the lease with CBIA did not go smoothly and they resorted to lobbying efforts to have the RUE extended for an additional 60 years. The RUE provides almost no oversight authority by NPS and little protection for the rich natural and cultural resources found on the property. Friends of Virgin Islands National Park and the St. John community have voiced loudly and clearly, opposition to an extension of the RUE.

In 2014, significant environmental contamination was documented on the Caneel Bay property. CBIA moved to prevent further characterization of the pollution by attempting to disallow NPS staff and contractors back onto the property which is owned by NPS. This environmental contamination has been allowed to remain in the ground, on the property and likely seeping into the ocean for decades. It continues today, potentially causing health concerns for Virgin Islanders and visitors, as well as potentially impacting one of the most important marine ecosystems on earth, a portion of which was designated in 2001 as the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument. Together with CBIA’s lack of maintenance of the property pursuant to paragraph 2 of the grant of Retained Use Estate, “…[Grantor] will use and maintain the Premises in such a manner that will (a) be consistent with the preservation of such outstanding scenic and other features of national significance and (b) preserve the Premises to the extent feasible in their natural condition for the public benefit, enjoyment and inspiration…” this failure of environmental protection and property maintenance is a clear violation of the requirements of the RUE.

We are writing you today, and copying DOI and NPS staff, elected officials and the media to request action. We have been unable to document that the 2013 NEPA process was ever finished and a “Finding of No Significant Impact” was ever signed off by the then Virgin Islands National Park Superintendent. At the very least, this document should be required for negotiations with CBIA on a non-competitive 40 year lease to commence as the preferred alternative. Regardless, the findings of environmental contamination, the impacts of the 2017 hurricanes and CBIA’s disparagement of the St. John community calls into question the validity of the 2013 NEPA process.

Friends of Virgin Islands National Park supports a return of amenities on the Caneel Bay property that will provide local jobs and support for the Virgin Islands’ economy. There are many alternatives for development and management of the property that will ensure protection of the natural and cultural resources found there. Immediate extinguishment of the RUE and commencement of an updated NEPA process would allow the NPS to keep with Laurance Rockefeller’s wishes that the property revert to NPS oversight by 2023 and that the public be afforded greater access to the property. We are requesting:

  • Extinguishment of the RUE for CBIA’s failure to preserve and maintain the property.
  • Commencement of a new NEPA process that will provide the St. John and larger Virgin Islands’ community with a voice in the future development and management of the Caneel Bay property.
  • Immediately resume full characterization of the environmental contamination on the property leading to a remediation plan that holds responsible parties accountable.

Friends of Virgin Islands National Park are a proud partner to NPS and VINP. We are also proud to partner with the St. John and Virgin Islands community in helping guide the protection of Caneel Bay for current and future generations. We stand ready to support NPS and DOI in the above requested actions. We will be working with our local community and national partners on any legal means necessary to ensure our community is heard and our resources protected.

We very much look forward to your response and to working with you and your staff to bring Caneel Bay back for St. John, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Americans everywhere.

 

Sincerely,

  

Andrew Rutnik                                                                                            Todd Sampsell

Board Chair                                                                                                   President

 

Cc:

Douglas W. Domenech, Assistant Secretary, Insular and International Affairs, DOI

Margaret Everson, Acting Director, National Park Service

Stan Austin, Regional Director, National Park Service

Nigel Fields, Superintendent, Virgin Islands National Park, NPS

Representative Stacey E. Plaskett, U.S. Congress

Governor Albert Bryan, U.S. Virgin Islands

Shikima Jones-Sprauve, St. John Administrator

Virgin Islands Daily News

Virgin Islands Source

 

This opinion authored byTodd Sampsell, President, Friends of Virgin Islands National Park appeared as a Letter to the Editor in The Virgin Islands Daily News on Wednesday, July 8, 2020.

Three years after hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated St. John and with three years left of the 40-year Retained Use Estate (RUE) granted by Laurance Rockefeller over the Caneel Bay Resort property, current RUE holder CBI Acquisitions, LLC (CBIA) has done nothing to return the property to a productive part of the Virgin Islands economy. Instead, CBIA continues to lobby in Washington D.C. for an extension of the RUE, an agreement that would provide more favorable business conditions for CBIA. It would provide less oversight of the property’s significant natural and cultural resources by the National Park Service on behalf of our community and the American people. It would provide less economic benefit to the St. John and St. Thomas communities through reduced occupancy and hotel tax revenue. In addition to 60 more years of a sweetheart deal, CBIA has sought to avoid responsibility for significant environmental contamination of the property, a situation that may have profound impacts on the marine environment of the US Virgin Islands, including Coral Reef National Monument and the health of St. John residents and visitors. 

Friends of Virgin Islands National Park (Friends) are hereby calling on the National Park Service and Department of Interior, members of Congress and the Bryan Administration to begin working in earnest on a path forward for the Caneel Bay Resort property. As stated in our original position on Caneel, see https://www.friendsvinp.org/our-work/blog/19-friends-position-statement-on-caneel-bay-resort, the Friends, on behalf of our 8,000 members, does not support extending the RUE. This sentiment was echoed by the St. John community at public meetings in 2018. We feel that legislation passed in 2010, allowing for a noncompetitive lease between DOI NPS and the RUE holder for up to 40 years provided a satisfactory business opportunity for the current or future lease holders while ensuring better NPS oversight and protection of the property’s resources for all Americans. Unfortunately, it seems that wasn’t enough for CBIA.

Since CBIA would not negotiate in good faith on an unheard of, noncompetitive 40-year lease and since the National Park Service’s 2013 NEPA process is likely no longer relevant given the environmental contamination found in 2014 and the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, we are requesting the National Park Service restart a NEPA process that provides fuller public input opportunities into the best options for Caneel’s redevelopment. NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act, established in 1970 to ensure federal agencies evaluate environmental, social and economic impacts of their decisions before taking actions. The NEPA process requires public input from the community as options for action are considered and developed. We do not believe another 40 years of CBIA control over Caneel is in the best interest of the property’s resources or the community of St. John.

Further, we call on our elected and appointed officials from the local to national levels of government to recognize the St. John and St. Thomas communities as a voice in the planning and negotiating for the future lease and/or concession agreements for the Caneel Bay property. NO MORE SECRET WASHINGTON DC NEGOTIATIONS! As Laurance Rockefeller intended with the extinguishment of the RUE in 2023, we ask that any negotiated lease or concession agreements provide the St. John community and visitors greater access to the property as part of our Virgin Islands National Park, land and waters owned by all Americans.

The National Park Service, DOI and with the assistance of the Environmental Protection Agency should immediately resume characterizing the extent of the environmental contamination of the Caneel Bay property. A restoration and remediation plan should be developed that would allow the property to be brought back as a safe, clean and productive part of the St. John economy and an amenity for our Virgin Islands National Park. Costs for environmental cleanup should be borne by responsible parties.

The people of St. John have persisted in the years following the devastation of the hurricanes of 2017. Residents and visitors deserve amenities on the Caneel Bay property that contribute to the local economy, protect the valuable resources found there, and once again showcase an authentic Caribbean experience that can be found nowhere else. The legal mechanisms are already in place to enable this to happen. NO RUE EXTENSION IS NEEDED.

 

Thank you Daily News for featuring the Friends Annual Meeting today! We are proud of the work that our organization has done over the past year thanks to our members, volunteers, and donors, as well as the National Park Service, the administration, and the St. John community. #protect #preserve #connect

Dear Friends, Members and Supporters:

Due to the current and very fluid situation with COVID-19 the Friends are working to make sure our staff, volunteers, members, partners, visitors and community members are not put at undue risk.

Beginning Thursday, March 19th, we will be discontinuing the Reef Bay hike and all scheduled events and seminars through the end of April, or until guidance from the Governor and CDC deems it safe to resume. We feel that during group gatherings, taxi and boat transportation there is very real risk of spread of the virus. If you are scheduled for a hike or event in March or April, we will be in contact with you.

By all means, please continue hiking the trails in our beautiful Virgin Islands National Park! We can think of no better way to practice healthy social distancing. We will continue to keep trails maintained with the help of island-based volunteers and staff.

While the Earth Day event will be canceled, we are planning virtual ways to celebrate during the month of April! We are also planning to hold beach clean-ups in April as we do every year. More information will be available on our website and social media.

The National Park Service will be closing the Visitor Center today (NPS Press release).  We will be closing the Friends stores in both the Visitor Center and Mongoose Junction until further notice.  Please visit our online store at https://friendsvinp.org/friends-virgin-islands-park-store for your Friends gear and gift needs. All purchases help support important projects and programs in the park.

The Friend’s staff is being encouraged to telework as much as possible to minimize contact and to better focus on personal and family health and wellness. Please call ahead if you need to meet with a member of the staff at our offices to insure they are available. We are working on improving our online resources and exploring new ways of keeping our members and visitors informed of what’s happening in your Virgin Islands National Park. Wherever you are in the world, we hope our Virgin Islands scenes and updates will help make your time until you can visit again a little more bearable.

Although many activities are being postponed, our commitment to our park and our mission cannot falter. We will continue to maintain our trails, clean our beaches, and maintain re-vegetation efforts. We will continue to stand strong on the frontlines, advocating for the protection and preservation of our park's natural and cultural resources. And, we will once again, like after the hurricanes, and throughout the government shutdown, position ourselves to respond to the park's needs with urgency, professionalism, and foresight.

Our community has shown its resilience time and again. We expect this will be no different. We will continue to provide updates as the situation warrants any changes. Stay up to date at https://friendsvinp.org/ and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Thank you for your continued support of the Friends and Virgin Islands National Park, it is just as important now as ever.

Wishing you all good health. Take care.

 

Todd Sampsell,

President

 

“The Friends is thrilled with the announcement of Nigel Fields as permanent superintendent of Virgin Islands National Park and Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument. The park and the St. John/St. Thomas community deserve and will benefit from continuity in leadership. The Friends shares in Nigel’s vision for a more sustainable park and we pledge to assist NPS and the park staff in protecting and preserving the park’s natural and cultural resources. Most importantly, we’re excited to help Nigel and his staff work to better connect visitors to the park and the park to the local Virgin Islands community. 

The Board and staff of the Friends congratulate Nigel and we look forward to working together to improve Virgin Islands National Park for everyone.”

– Todd Sampsell, President, Friends of Virgin Islands National Park

 

National Park Service Press Release

For Immediate Release – January 27, 2020

Contact – This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., NPS South Atlantic-Gulf Region, 404-507-5612

                This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Virgin Islands National Park & Coral Reef National Monument, 435-491-0579

 

Nigel Fields Named Superintendent of National Park Service Sites in St John, U.S. Virgin Islands

ATLANTA - The National Park Service (NPS) South Atlantic-Gulf Regional Director Robert A. Vogel today announced the selection of Nigel A. Fields as superintendent of Virgin Islands National Park and Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, effective February 16.  Fields has served as the acting superintendent of both park units since December 2018. 

“Nigel has demonstrated acumen in science-based decision making, meaningful community engagement and strategic thinking necessary to help shape a positive future for the park and St. John,” said Vogel. “I am confident in his ability to promote smarter, more sustainable development as the park and community continue to heal from the devastating 2017 hurricane season.”

 

During his year-long assignment as acting superintendent in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Fields:

  • Led recovery efforts totaling more than $40 million in sustainability-focused design and construction projects following the devastating impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria;
  • Successfully pushed for the reopening of concessions services and fee collection at Trunk Bay, recognized as one of the world’s most beloved beaches;
  • Led the development of a renewed philanthropic partnership with the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, which has pledged over $1M in funding and programmatic support for 2020; and
  • With an emphasis on safety and resource protection, collaborated with multiple law enforcement agencies within the Caribbean High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area on successfully thwarting multiple illegal immigration and smuggling attempts on St. John. 

“I grew up swimming, fishing, hunting, farming, hiking, canoeing, camping and otherwise wandering the beaches, estuaries and pine savannahs of the Gulf Coast,” Fields said. “The deep connection of Virgin Islanders to their stunning landscape drew me to St. John and it now feels like home. This is a time like no other to rebuild park facilities and reinvigorate visitor connections to a rich cultural experience reflective of the diversity and history of the islands.”

 

Since transitioning to the National Park Service eight years ago, Fields has served as the chief of resource education at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and as chief of interpretation for New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park and Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana. During that time, he completed temporary assignments as deputy associate director for interpretation, education and volunteers with the agency’s Washington

Support Office and as assistant regional director for communications and congressional affairs in Atlanta. Fields also participated in multi-park special events, including the Selma to Montgomery Commemorative “Walking Classroom,” NPS Centennial programs in Chicago and the nation’s capital and facilitated NPS Academy experiential learning programs in Tennessee and New York.

 

Before joining the National Park Service in 2011, Fields spent 15 years as an environmental health scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, including serving as the regional science program director with the Office of Research and Development. At EPA, Fields promoted community-based science solutions that protect children and vulnerable populations from threatening toxics in their air, food and water. 

 

Fields holds a bachelor’s degree in ecology, evolution and organismal biology from Tulane University and received a Master of Science in environmental health sciences from the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

 

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